CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas -- Stage two of The Rocket's relaunch came off without a hitch Sunday in front of an overflow, record-setting crowd of 9,022 at Whataburger Field.
Roger Clemens, throwing 73 pitches in a six-inning stint, elicited rave reviews from fans and admiring respect from opposing batters, but it was the pitcher's own appraisal that was most significant.
"I felt comfortable out there," Clemens said. "I was able to stay under control and attack the strike zone."
Better yet, he did so with no physical problems. "My upper body's great and my arm feels great," he said afterwards.
The San Antonio Missions, who had to face a Hooks lineup reinforced with rehabbing Brandon Backe and Jeff Bagwell last September, served as Clemens' opponents. But they offered only token resistance as Clemens so completely dominated the San Antonio hitters that the seagulls circling the field began to land in left field.
Clemens, chalking up 11 strikeouts to tie the team record set by Jason Hirsh, didn't allow a hit until the fifth inning.
After going 2-0 with a couple of 93 mph fastballs, Clemens struck out leadoff hitter Sebastian Boucher with the next three pitches to open the game. He disposed of the second hitter, Jason Bourgeois, on three pitches, mixing in his first off-speed offerings of the night. A broken-bat groundout ended the inning, with Clemens' pitch count at 10.
The Hooks got him a run in the bottom of the inning and Clemens responded by striking out the side on 11 pitches. At the conclusion of the fourth, he had chalked up nine strikeouts on only 45 pitches, including 33 strikes.
Clemens was the center of attention, but he was aware the game was more than just a chance for the local fans to see him in action as Corpus Christi -- with only seven games remaining in the first-half Texas League schedule -- was fighting to hold on to the lead in the South Division and secure a playoff berth.
Hooks manager Dave Clark, who during his time with the Cleveland Indians was a personal victim of two of Clemens' 4,502 big league strikeouts, said having a seven-time Cy Young Award winner in the lineup was obviously a major plus, as much for his attitude as his arm.
"He's a perfect role model for young players," Clark said. "He told the team he was taking the game seriously and insisted they did, too. He told them to ignore all the hoopla and just concentrate on playing as hard as they could, just like he does."
Clemens and Hooks catcher J.R. House, who gladly gave up his usual No. 22 Hooks jersey to the pitcher for the night, spent 20 minutes before the game talking about hitters and preparing an attack plan. Astros pitching coordinator Dewey Robinson consulted with Clemens in the dugout between innings.
Clemens will make his final Minor League tune-up start Friday at Round Rock against the Triple-A New Orleans Zephyrs, with his first Astros start scheduled for June 22 against the Twins. Clemens said he needed another start and was pleased it would be in a NL situation against the Nationals' top affiliate.
"I need to work on my bunting and hitting and just getting in the batter's box like a National League pitcher does," he explained.
Clemens also expressed a desire to pitch in more adverse game conditions than he's seen in his two Minor League starts so far, although if Friday's performance follows the pattern he's established, that may be difficult.
"I need to get out there and get in some tough situations," he said.