• Sal Maiorana

The Rocket lands in uncharted territory with his first 20-strikeout game

BOSTON - (April 29, 1986) - When Roger Clemens was a high school pitching phenom in Houston, his hero was then Astros fireballer Nolan Ryan.

“After Nolan Ryan signed with the Astros, I’d try to go to the Dome every time he pitched,” Clemens said. “I’d sit down by the bullpen when he’d warm up. There was never anyone there, and I loved the sound his fastball made in the glove. It sounded like a gun.”

Now there was nothing out of the ordinary about Clemens’ fascination with Ryan. Ryan served as a god to scores of men – young and old – as much for the classy way he went about his business as for his 95 mph fastball which was primarily responsible for his all-time major league record 5,714 strikeouts.

What made Clemens’ interest in Ryan unique is that the boy grew up to become a major-league pitcher who smashed one of Ryan’s most impressive records.

As 1986 dawned, only three pitchers – Ryan, Steve Carlton and Tom Seaver – had struck out 19 batters in a regulation nine-inning game. No one had reached 20 until a chilly April night at Fenway Park when Clemens toyed with the Seattle Mariners.

“I watched perfect games by Catfish Hunter and Mike Witt, but this was the most awesome pitching performance I’ve ever seen,” said Boston manager John McNamara. “And I don’t think you will see another like it again in the history of baseball.”

Turned out McNamara was wrong because somewhat incredibly, Clemens did it again in his last season with the Red Sox in 1996, and then Kerry Wood struck out 20 for the Cubs in 1998, and Max Scherzer had 20 for the Nationals in 2016.

Still, at a time in baseball when batters were much harder to strike out than they are now, Clemens’ performance was sublime.

“The thing that amazed me the most was that they had so many swings and weren’t even able to foul the ball,” said Boston catcher Rich Gedman. “It wasn’t like he was trying to paint the corners or anything. He was challenging them and they weren’t able to get the bat on the ball.”

Clemens did not walk a batter, gave up only three hits, and of his 138 pitches only 29 were put in play or fouled.

Clemens was coming off shoulder surgery in 1985 which had cut short his second major-league season and throughout spring training in 1986 he’d been tentative, afraid to throw his hardest.

When the regular season began he won his first two starts, striking out only nine combined against the White Sox and Royals. But when he struck out 10 Tigers on April 22 to move to 3-0, that’s when he felt like he had regained full confidence in his shoulder.

“Now’s the time to air it out,” Clemens said, recalling his thoughts heading into his next outing against the Mariners a week later. “I knew then that I was back where I thought I was headed two years ago.”

A crowd of only 13,414 was on hand, partly because of the cold weather but mainly because the Boston Celtics were hosting an NBA playoff game over at Boston Garden. “It was a small crowd, but it was a noisy one,” Clemens said.

Clemens struck out the side in the first inning, rang up two more strikeouts in the second, and had a perfect game going through three innings. In the fourth, his former college teammate, Spike Owen, lined a single to right, but Clemens responded by striking out the side for the second time.

The third punchout of the inning was slugger Gorman Thomas, but only because Don Baylor – Boston’s regular designated hitter who was playing first base for the injured Bill Buckner – had dropped his foul pop-up, providing Clemens the opportunity for the strikeout, his ninth in four innings.

Clemens struck out the side for the third time in the fifth, and when Dave Henderson and Steve Yeager whiffed in the sixth Clemens had eight consecutive strikeouts, tying the American League record. Owen prevented him from going for Seaver’s major-league mark of 10 in a row when he flied to center to end the inning.

There was an intriguing moment during the seventh when Clemens walked off the mound after fanning Phil Bradley. McNamara, aware that Clemens was in the midst of a magical performance but ever mindful of his past arm and shoulder troubles, feared something was wrong.

“There was Roger crossing the foul line, and my heart jumped and I almost collapsed,” McNamara said. “(Trainer) Charlie (Moss) and I leaped up the dugout steps and as I ran toward Clemens I said, ‘Roger, my God, what’s the matter?’”

When Clemens said he simply needed something to clean out his spikes, McNamara couldn’t have been happier. “When he said that, I almost passed out from relief.”

Clemens opened the seventh by whiffing Ken Phelps for his 16th strikeout, but Thomas quickly silenced the crowd by blasting a home run to center field, breaking a scoreless tie. Incredibly, Clemens was now in danger of losing the game because Seattle starter Mike Moore was blanking the Red Sox, but those worries were quelled when Dwight Evans hit a three-run homer to center in the bottom of the inning.

Rejuvenated with the lead – “When Dwight popped it, it gave me a second wind,” Clemens said – he struck out Ivan Calderon and Henderson in the eighth. The fans were going crazy as he walked to the dugout and he wasn’t sure why until Boston pitcher Al Nipper informed him what was happening.

“I wasn’t sure what they were screaming about until Nip came over to me and said, ‘Man, Rocket, you got a chance for an all-time record,’” Clemens said. “I was pitching on all adrenaline at this time. I was throwing the ball right down the heart of the plate.”

Still, the Mariners could barely touch him. Owen went down swinging, enabling Clemens to tie Seaver, Carlton and his hero, Ryan. Bradley, already a three-time victim, got ahead 2-0 before looking helplessly at three strikes in a row and Clemens stood alone in the record book. Phelps grounded out to end the game.

“It just didn’t sink in, what it all meant,” Clemens said. “But my teammates were all excited, and when I got home I got calls from a lot of my family, and my brothers were crying, and my mother was crying and they said, ‘You’re in the Hall of Fame.’ Well, I didn’t sleep a wink. I’m not a drinking man, but I think I should have had a few beers to relax me. I tried counting sheep, I tried everything. Maybe I should have tried counting K’s.”