The scene in the top of the third inning last night was something so cliche that it'd probably be rejected by novelists Mitch Albom or Mike Lupica, or even the sports films department at Disney. Roger Clemens, the future Hall of Fame warhorse, likely ending his career as a player on a strikeout. Embattled manager Joe Torre (conveniently embattled before the game by George Steinbrenner) taking the ball from the injured oldest Yankee, and handing it to the youngest Yankee, Phil Hughes. Hughes running into trouble at the start (a double that allowed the baserunner he inherited from Clemens to score), then bearing down to win the game and help avoid the sweep.
Backtracking a bit, Brother T and I got into the Stadium just as the air force flyover was going on, paused for a moment at the Loge level to see Tino Martinez throw out the first pitch, and got to our seats in Tier 31 just in time to see Clemens finish his warm-up pitches before the top of the first.
It was obvious the Rocket didn't have it, right from the start. His velocity was weak (85 MPH on the Stadium gun seemed rather generous to me) and his control wasn't there. Still, I'm convinced he would have had a scoreless inning in the first if not for Jeter's error (yeah, I know the official scorer had a different opinion, but even a decent throw gets the runner, there). Nixon's homer disappeared into the deck under us, so that we couldn't see if it left the park--much as Damon's homer would, later--but it was a no-doubter. Roger seemed unable to put batters away after getting ahead in the count, and the Tribe seemed locked in to hold off of the splitter/forkball.
It wasn't obvious if Clemens' hammies were bothering from my viewpoint far overhead. While he was on the mound, he didn't visibly limp or do any of the familiar motions you see when a pitcher is fighting leg discomfort. Over on TBS's Hot Corner Will Carroll noted that the Rocket was wincing and grunting while warming up (I didn't have a data feed at the ballpark, I heard about this later), but the only time it really looked like there was something wrong was the last pitch, which the Rocket seemed to overstride painfully. And that was it.
As he walked off the mound, a few knuckleheads were booing. Applause to counteract that shameful display came in a split second after, although some in my section cheered half-heartedly, and things definitely got stronger when Phil the Phenom started his jog in from the pen. All night, the crowd didn't really have the energy I've experienced in past playoffs, overall.
Back to Clemens, remembering how excited the Stadium crowd was when they made the live announcement that he was coming to the club's rescue back in May, it was a sour way end to things, if this is it for Roger's 2007, or his career. I (and I have no inside knowledge) think that last night's game is both. Regardless of whether the Yanks advance beyond this round, Clemens can't be counted upon in his current state. Personally, I hope that this is the moment that finally convinces Clemens to hang them up for good--he could convince himself that it was just his hamstring that ruined the end of the season, but he should remember the lost velocity on his fastball that plagued him all season, the lack of dominance, even when he threw well. This way, at least he goes out on a strikeout. Watching him pitch last night, I'm not sure there's another strikeout left in that arm, period.
Hughes was a complete change from the Rocket on the mound. The Franchise was throwing in the 93-94 MPH range, and he kept Cleveland guessing between the fastball and that hammer of a curve. The only problem he had--and this has been consistent all season--is that he wasn't terribly efficient with his pitches, throwing 63 in 3 2/3 innings of work. He was shaky enough in the sixth that Joe Torre was warming up Joba Chamberlain after the first batter. This proved to be a costly decision, because Joba warmed up hard and I think that (under one of the old Joba Rules) Torre felt the need to bring him into the game even after the Yankee lead had ballooned to six. Joba worked hard for 38 pitches in the seventh and eighth, an effort which should keep him out of Game 4. I don't blame Torre for calling on Rivera with the four-run lead, but two innings for Joba leaves no one in the bullpen that I would trust to get the game from Wang to Rivera tonight. What's fresh? Blockhead Kyle? Burnt-out Vizcaino?
On the other side of the ball, Johnny Damon's homer was like a defibrillator charge to the Yankees' offense. After a first half that had me wishing him elsewhere, Damon's really proven to be an essential element of this ballclub. Being able to play left, rather than just DH, helps. Derek Jeter owes Damon a bottle of whatever the former Capt. Caveman drinks, since his 3 for 4, four RBI performance overshadowed an awful game by the Captain. Somehow, I think that if the Yankees' season ends at this level, Sunday's 2 for 4 from Alex Rodriguez will be overshadowed by a lack of RBIs. But Jeter and Posada, neither of whom have hit in this series, will continue to get a pass.
For better or for worse, more after Game 4.