Clemens upstaged in debut by Twins rookie Liriano

HOUSTON (AP) -- While Roger Clemens returned to the mound for his

23rd major league season, his Houston Astros teammates got a close

look at a future ace in Francisco Liriano.

Olney: It'll get better

Roger Clemens was OK. Not great, not terrible. Plain ol' OK. And for someone who is 43 and stepping into the middle of a marathon when all the other runners are warmed up and in midrace form, not bad.

But Clemens looked healthy, and he will get better. The last month Clemens was fully healthy, this past August, he had an ERA of 1.70 and opposing hitters batted .166. Is he going to get to that point again? I don't know. But he's at least going to be good, once he gets his legs back, and he may well be a difference-maker in the NL playoff race.

• For more of Buster Olney's analysis, click here. Insider

Minnesota's 22-year-old phenom pitched seven scoreless innings

to lead the Twins to a 4-2 win over Houston in Clemens'

much-anticipated 2006 debut.

The Rocket was looking for his 342nd win. Instead it was

Liriano, only 7 months old when Clemens started his big league

career, who earned his eighth victory.

"That's as good as we've seen," Astros manager Phil Garner

said. "Let me say that again -- that's the

best we've seen so far."

The 43-year-old Clemens (0-1), a seven-time Cy Young Award

winner, left after throwing 100 pitches in five innings. It was his

first major league start since leaving Game 1 of the World Series

exactly eight months ago with a strained hamstring. He allowed six

hits and two runs while striking out four and walking two.

"I'm trying to fight off age the best I can and I'll do the

work," Clemens said. "I came in as a power pitcher, I want to go

out as one. That's the objective."

Liriano (7-1) gave up just four hits in eight innings and didn't

allow a run until Jason Lane's two-run homer in the eighth, helping

the Twins to their ninth win in 10 games and their fourth straight

series victory.

Joe Nathan worked the ninth for his 11th save.

"It was fun to watch Roger," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire

said. "But on our side it was actually more fun to watch

Francisco. He's what we come to see."

The sellout crowd of 43,769 was the largest in the history of

Houston's ballpark.

Clemens, who wears jersey No. 22, re-signed with the Astros on

May 31 for a one-year contract worth $22,000,022. Since he's

joining the team late, he'll get a portion of that amount -- about

$12.25 million. He had three tuneup starts in the minors before

joining the Astros.

"It was positive," Clemens said. "My body felt better than

expected and I hope and expect to get stronger each time I get out


Liriano faced the minimum through the first six innings, thanks

to double plays in three of them. He walked Craig Biggio leading

off the seventh before retiring three straight batters.

Liriano seemed unfazed by all the hoopla surrounding Clemens'


"I feel about the same as I always do," he said. "I just put

it out of my mind and don't think about it. I didn't want to put

too much pressure on myself."

It was the longest outing of the season for Liriano, who struck

out a career-high 11 batters in his last start. He fanned seven and

walked two Thursday.

"He didn't leave anything over the plate to hit," Astros

shortstop Adam Everett said. "It's pretty amazing. I think we

faced one of the premier pitchers in the game right now."

Clemens' early departure was likely precipitated by his

struggles in the third inning. He gave up an RBI double to Jason

Kubel and a run-scoring single to Michael Cuddyer.

"I'm disappointed. There was one pitch I'd like to have back,"

Clemens said, referring to Kubel's double. "Other than that, it

was just a good battle. It was a good challenge for me."

The Rocket then walked Justin Morneau, sending catcher Brad

Ausmus and pitching coach Jim Hickey to the mound for a short chat.

"I had that one long inning and I was trying to make a point to

work fast and see how winded I could get and it worked out fine,"

Clemens said.

Clemens made 35 pitches in the first two innings combined, but

had thrown 38 more by the time he struck out Torii Hunter to end

the third.

"Roger's 43, there's no way he's going to be like he used to,"

said Hunter, who is 0-for-22 with 13 strikeouts against Clemens.

"He's throwing 91 (mph), not 98 or 99 like he used to. You can't

expect him to be that great. But he still looks good."

The Twins extended their lead to 3-0 in the sixth when Morneau

homered off Russ Springer. Hunter had an RBI single in the eighth.

In the fifth, Clemens lumbered over to cover first base on a

3-6-1 double play. He pointed at the umpire to make sure he got the

call before slowly retreating to the mound.

Early on, he showed his signature pinpoint control. Two of

Clemens' first three pitches were 91 mph fastballs for strikes. On

the fourth, Luis Castillo hit a chopper over the mound. Clemens

jumped to glove it, but dropped the ball on the way down and

couldn't scoop it up before Castillo reached first base safely.

Clemens was charged with an error.

The next batter grounded into a double play before Joe Mauer,

who leads the majors in hitting, struck out.

This game continued a trend from last year as the Astros failed

to give Clemens much run support. The Rocket was 13-8 with a

career-best 1.87 ERA in 32 starts last season, but Houston was shut

out in nine of his starts and scored two runs or less in five


"Hopefully, it won't be like last year," Everett said.

Fittingly, it was University of Texas night at Minute Maid Park

as its favorite former baseball player took the mound. The sellout

crowd that gave him a standing ovation when he took the mound was

peppered with Clemens jerseys, from both the Astros and Texas, and

many fans held signs.

Among the most clever was a man in what looked to be a space

suit, holding one that read: "That's a Roger Houston Our Rocket

Has Landed." Another read: "Clemens is proof the 40s is the new


Between the first and second innings a video segment played on

the stadium screen featuring Astros pitchers discussing Clemens'

performance when he came out of the bullpen to pitch in Houston's

18-inning playoff win over the Braves last season.Game notes
The Astros purchased Clemens' contract from Triple-A Round

Rock before the game. ... Cuddyer extended his hitting streak to

seven games.