Clemens' 20-K game, 30 years later
Boston's 100 Greatest Games: No. 68
Red Sox 3, Mariners 1
April 29, 1986
With one record-setting outing from Roger Clemens,
the Red Sox were suddenly relevant again
It was early. Early in the evening. Early in the season. Early in the bloated melodrama that was the career of Roger Clemens. But the potential for something special was already evident.
Clemens had just struck out Jim Presley, the Seattle Mariners number-five hitter, on three pitches. Now he had two quick swinging strikes on Ivan Calderon, the Seattle right fielder. It was only the top of the second inning, in a matchup of the 9–8 Red Sox and 7–12 Mariners, on a Tuesday night in April. Just 13,414 people were at Fenway Park. (This was roughly 1,400 fewer than were jammed into Boston Garden that night for Game 2 of the NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Celtics and Hawks.) But when the count reached 0–2 on Calderon, the noise level spiked among the small but savvy Fenway crowd. As play-by-play man Ned Martin noted on the NESN broadcast, “Fans are starting to get excited early.”
Calderon took the next pitch. Home plate umpire Vic Voltaggio rang him up. The crowd erupted. Clemens had five strikeouts in two innings. This was an irresistible force versus an eminently moveable object.
Clemens had missed the last two months of the ’85 season with a torn labrum. Following surgery, he had gradually regained the velocity and the confidence he had shown as a 22-year-old call-up in 1984, when he had fanned fifteen Kansas City Royals on an August night at Fenway. He was 3–0 in three starts so far in the 1986 season. His strikeout totals had climbed steadily, from two to seven to ten. Moreover, he was working on a full week’s rest, thanks to a Sunday rainout and an off day on Monday.
The swing-and-miss Seattle Mariners, in the throes of a 2–9 slump, were the perfect foil. During their eleven-game funk they had hit a sickly .137 and scored just 21 runs while striking out 101 times. As the Globe’s Larry Whiteside noted in his series preview, the ’86 Mariners were on pace to shatter the single-season strikeout record set by the ’68 Mets. Now, after a cross-country flight from Oakland, they had to face an amped-up young fireballer on a cool New England night with a brisk wind in their faces.
Clemens had had trouble with his control in the top of the first—a result, no doubt, of the extra rest. Eye-level fastballs had dropped Mariners leadoff hitter Spike Owen into the dirt on successive pitches. But the high heat also delivered a not-so-subtle message: With Clemens on the Fenway mound, no visiting hitter should get too comfortable at the plate—not even an old friend like Owen, Clemens’s former University of Texas teammate.
From the second inning on Clemens had almost flawless command, to go with high velocity and wicked movement. The Fenway crowd was more energized when the visitors were up than when the Red Sox were. Any time a Seattle hitter put a ball in play, even for an easy out, fans reacted with palpable disappointment.
Another oddity: A Red Sox error turned into a cause for celebration. Don Baylor, normally a DH, was playing first base for just the second time in three years. (Bill Buckner, the starting first baseman, had taken Baylor’s spot at DH with a sore elbow.) Baylor dropped an easy foul popup on a 3–2 pitch to Mariners DH Gorman Thomas with two outs in the fourth. Clemens got Thomas looking on the next pitch. That was the third of eight straight whiffs—a Red Sox record.
To add to the drama, Clemens got no run support through the first six innings. After two more strikeouts to start the seventh, Clemens got ahead of Thomas, 1–2. But his next pitch caught too much of the plate. Thomas, an all-or-nothing swinger, got all this time, for a home run to center. Suddenly Clemens was in danger of losing the best game he had ever pitched. After getting Presley on a groundout to end the inning, he hurled his glove into the dugout in disgust. But the downer didn’t last long. Dwight Evans answered with a three-run shot in the home half, and after that the focus shifted from the scoreboard to the record book. In the eighth, Clemens got Calderon and Dave Henderson (who was destined to become a Sox hitting hero within six months) to pass Bill Monbouquette (seventeen strikeouts) for the Red Sox single-game record. Owen became victim number nineteen leading off the ninth, as Clemens equaled the major league mark. Then came the record-breaker—the most telling K of the night.
Left fielder Phil Bradley had struck out three times already, all swinging. In the first he was late on a fastball up and away. In the fourth he was late on a fastball down and in. In the seventh he was late on a letter-high fastball right over the heart of the plate.
In the ninth Bradley didn’t swing at all. He got ahead in the count, 2–0, then watched three straight strikes sail past. He looked like an overmatched Little Leaguer just praying to draw a walk. But Clemens hadn’t walked a batter all night, and he didn’t start now. Instead he rang up his twentieth strikeout. In 110 years of major league baseball, no pitcher had ever done that before in a nine-inning game.
Afterward Cooperstown came calling, soliciting mementoes for an instant shrine. Clemens, still just an impressionable 23-year-old kid, was thrilled to comply. “I’m in the Hall of Fame,” he said. “That’s something nobody can take away from me now.”
The 1986 Red Sox season took on a different character after that night. Clemens’s gem was the second game of a 12–2 streak that propelled Boston from an 8–8 team in third place to a 20–10 team in first. The Red Sox went on to make the postseason for the first time since 1975. Clemens ended up at 24–4, with a 2.48 ERA and 238 strikeouts, to win the first of his seven Cy Young Awards. As for the Hall of Fame, well….
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