Clemens struggles, finishes strong in last minor league start

Friday, June 16th 2006, 9:52 pm
By: News On 6

ROUND ROCK, Texas (AP) _ It was a rough start and solid finish for The Rocket.

Next stop: Houston.

Pitching for the Triple-A Round Rock Express in the final tuneup before his return to the Astros, Roger Clemens gave up three runs on three hits in the first inning before settling into a big-league groove Friday night against the New Orleans Zephyrs.

The seven-time Cy Young Award winner also walked three and faced nine batters in the first, throwing 41 pitches before retiring the next eight hitters in a row.

He finished the night with 5 2-3 innings of work with five strikeouts, five hits and three walks. Of his 91 total pitches, 57 went for strikes.

The 43-year-old Clemens flashed a ``Hook'em Horns'' sign and got a standing ovation from the Express-record 13,475 fans who came to watch the former Texas Longhorns star pitch about 15 miles from the campus where he won an NCAA championship in 1983.

Seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and actor Matthew McConaughey got a front-row seat next to the Express dugout.

But unlike his two previous starts in Single-A Lexington, Ky., and Double-A Corpus Christi, where hitters might have been in awe of the burly right-hander, the Zephyrs were patient at the plate as Clemens struggled to find the strike zone.

It took a long time for Clemens to settle in as he missed inside and out with a fastball that hit 91 mph several times.

Leadoff hitter Bernie Castro singled over the mound, stole second and moved to third on a sacrifice fly before scoring on Larry Broadway's single.

Two straight walks loaded the bases and forced in a run. Catcher Humberto Quintero and Express pitching coach Burt Hooton, who spent 15 seasons in the majors, both visited the mound to talk to Clemens, who has 341 career victories.

Mike Vento's soft single to center made it 3-0.

Clemens has 4,502 career strikeouts but didn't get his first against the Zephyrs until a called third strike on Alberto Castillo for the second out. Castillo was the eighth batter of the inning.

Mixing up fastballs and curves, Clemens found his groove when he came back out for the second and left with a 1-2-3 inning.

The third ended when Tyrell Godwin tapped back to the mound and Clemens coolly scooped up the ball and tossed it to first for the final out of the inning.

After the rough start, Clemens needed just 27 pitches through the next three innings.

Clemens also had two at-bats. A .187 career hitter, he went 0-2 with two strikeouts.

Clemens signed a $22 million contract with the Astros for the 2006 season on May 31. He is scheduled to make his first major league start next Thursday in Houston against the Minnesota Twins. It will start his 23rd major league season.