TSN Archives: Roger Clemens strikes out 20 Mariners: 'I'm in the Hall of Fame'

TSN Archives: Roger Clemens strikes out 20 Mariners: 'I'm in the Hall of Fame'

This article was published in the May 12, 1986, issue of The Sporting News.

A Record for the Rocket

By Joe Giuliotti

Eight months after undergoing shoulder surgery, Roger Clemens, the 23-year-old Boston Red Sox righthander, rocketed into the record books April 29 by striking out 20 batters in a 3-1 victory over the Seattle Mariners.

Clemens’ fastball shot through the Fenway Park night like a bullet, clocked at speeds of 96 to 98 miles per hour, and his breaking ball was sharp as he became baseball’s nine-inning strikeout king.

In the 111th season of major league baseball, a pitcher finally arrived who could fan 20 batters in nine innings. Clemens disposed Nolan Ryan (Angels, 1974), Tom Seaver (Mets, 1970), Steve Carlton (Cardinals, 1969) and Charles Sweeney (Providence, 1884), all of whom had fanned 19. Tom Cheney of the Washington Senators had 21 strikeouts in a 1962 game, but he pitched 16 innings. 

Last August 30, Clemens was in the operating room at the Hughston Sports Medicine Hospital in Columbus, Ga., as Dr. James Andrews performed arthroscopic surgery for removal of a small piece of cartilage from Clemens’ right shoulder. The pitcher had gone on the disabled list twice in 1985, the last time on August 21 — when his season ended. 

That aching shoulder of ’85 was long forgotten and the crowd of 13,414 at Fenway Park was on its feet as Clemens, nicknamed The Rocket, rifled a 97-mph fastball past Phil Bradley and into the mitt of Boston catcher Rich Gedman for the second out in the ninth inning, and strikeout No. 20. Clemens had opened the ninth with his 19th strikeout, victimizing Seattle shortstop Spike Owen, his former University of Texas teammate. 

In almost every historic performance, a break plays a major role. For Clemens, pitching in just his 40th game in the major leagues, that stroke of good fortune came in the fourth inning.

Designated hitter Gorman Thomas, who would homer in the seventh for the only run off Clemens, lofted a routine pop foul on a 2-and-2 count that Don Baylor settled under and dropped. Baylor, normally the Boston DH, had switched positions with first baseman Bill Buckner because Buckner had an elbow injury. Two pitches after Baylor’s error, Thomas was called out on strikes. 

Clemens threw 138 pitches, 97 of them fastballs, and didn’t walk a batter. From the fourth to the sixth innings, he tied an American League record, shared by Ryan and Minnesota reliever Ron Davis, by striking out eight in a row. He had at least one strikeout in every inning and struck out the side in the first, fourth and fifth. 

Each batter in Seattle’s starting order fanned at least once, with Bradley a four-time victim. Eight batters took called third strikes. In the fifth inning, when Clemens struck out the side, each third strike was called. Clemens had six 3-and-2 counts in the first four innings, then no three-ball counts the rest of the game. 

“I’ve seen perfect games by Catfish Hunter and Mike Witt and I’ve seen some great games pitched by Seaver,” said Red Sox manager John McNamara. “But I’ve never seen a pitching performance as awesome as that, and I don’t think you will again in the history of baseball.”

Clemens was unaware that he was close to a record until Red Sox pitcher Al Nipper told him so in the dugout as the Red Sox batted in the bottom of the eighth.

“He said, ‘Rockey, you have a chance for the all-time record. Go for it with gusto,'” Clemens said. “I was tired, but when I made the decision to play this game, I said I was going to give it everything I had.

“The ninth inning was all adrenaline. I was just out there throwing.”

Twenty-four hours after his gem, Clemens still had no explanation. “It’s great. It’s unbelievable,” he said. “It’s spectacular and everything else that goes with it, and I thank the man in the sky for what I did. He was behind me through a lot of hard work.

“Records are made to be broken and I broke one. But you never know, somebody might come along and get this one. Or maybe one day I’ll be fortunate enough that I’ll have the same kind of stuff and go out there and maybe get a couple more.”

Thanks to a rainout in Kansas City and a day off, Clemens had six days of rest before he faced Seattle. In addition to the 20 batters he struck out, he had two-strike, no-ball counts on Owen and Jim Presley in the fourth inning, but Owen singled and Presley grounded out. Only Owen on his single to right and Thomas, who lined out to left in the second inning, pulled the ball against Clemens. Thomas’ homer was to center field and Danny Tartabull’s eighth-inning single went to right-center. 

“I almost had tears in my eyes,” said Bill Fischer, 55-year-old Red Sox pitching coach. “It was the best game I ever saw pitched. The second-best was by Jim Bunning, when he pitched a no-hitter for Detroit against the Red Sox in 1958.”

Umpire Vic Voltaggio said he was unaware most of the game that Clemens was on a record strikeout pace. “All I knew was that I was working the best pitching performance I’d ever seen,” the umpire said. “I told the bat boy that after the seventh inning.”

Gedman set an American League record for catchers with his 20 putouts and tied the major league mark of 20, set by the Mets’ Jerry Grote in 1970 in the game in which Seaver struck out 19 San Diego batters. 

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

Boston’s Dwight Evans hit a three-run homer off Mike Moore in the bottom of the seventh to give Clemens the victory. That wiped out the 1-0 lead Thomas had provided with his homer.

“Anything you say is an understatement,” said Thomas. “Clemens was overbearing. I think we should all be happy we were here. We’ll never see that again.”

Clemens broke the Red Sox strikeout record of 17, set by Bill Monbouquette in 1961, when he got Dave Henderson in the eighth inning. Clemens’ eight straight strikeouts erased the club record of six, shared by Buck O’Brien (1913) and Ray Culp (1970).

The Hall of Fame asked for the glove, spikes and cap Clemens wore, as well as the ball he threw past Bradley for strikeout No. 20.

“I’m in the Hall of Fame,” said the star-struck pitcher. “That’s something nobody can take away from me.”