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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Rocket's reentry on course

Roger Clemens took the mound against the Pittsburgh Pirates last night and earned his major league-leading sixth win of the season. That, sports fans, matches the combined win totals of Curt Schilling and Pedro Martinez.

The fact the Rocket's red glare is no longer bearing down on American League hitters has likely contributed to his early-season success. When Clemens was coaxed out of retirement by his hometown Houston Astros, it opened up a whole new stable of hitters to intimidate. Clemens may be 41 years old (he'll be 42 Aug. 4), but for a whole generation of National League players who have only seen him on "SportsCenter," stepping into the batter's box against him has already been compared to having a private audience with the king. St. Louis center fielder Jim Edmonds recently deemed it "a privilege" to bat against Clemens. (Wait until he crowds the plate and Clemens drills him in the ribs with one of his fastballs. Then we'll see how privileged he feels.)

Who would have ever guessed it? When the Red Sox chased Clemens in the fourth inning of Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, he stood among the throng of reporters after New York's wild win and assured them he would never pitch again after the World Series. He was adamant, and I believed him. There was no doubt at all this surefire Hall of Famer was done.

There's nothing worse than elite athletes who don't recognize when it's time to go. Willie Mays hung on too long. Magic Johnson's multiple comebacks were painful and embarrassing, and Rickey Henderson's inability to hang it up is bordering on the ridiculous.

Clemens's decision to pitch again had the potential to produce similar results. Instead, he posted a 5-0 record in April with a 1.95 ERA, as manager Jimy Williams wisely limited him to an average of a shade over six innings an outing. Last night, in exactly six innings, he limited the Pirates to five hits in a 6-2 victory. In the process, he passed Hall of Famer Steve Carlton for second place on the career strikeout list, finishing with nine strikeouts to run his total to 4,140. "He's probably pitching as well as he has in a number of years," reports Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker. "It's a tribute to how he takes care of himself, but it's also a tribute to his willingness to change.

"As you get older, you have to be able to realize you're not the same guy you were when you were 28. Roger hasn't resisted that. He's made adjustments. Some guys are stubborn. They won't change anything."

Although Clemens has still been clocked throwing his fastball around 94 miles per hour as late as the fifth inning, he's also flummoxed an array of top NL hitters by following up his heat with his split-finger fastball, which does a sudden nose dive just as it reaches the plate. His slider also remains nasty. It doesn't hurt either that Clemens stills stomps and snorts and grunts his way through most of his performances, causing his opponent to wonder if he's really as crazy as they say.

For years, Clemens waxed poetically about wanting to pitch in a place closer to his family. His credibility took a hit when he bolted from Boston soon after those comments. He was a hired gun for Toronto, where he won two Cy Youngs and plotted his exit strategy almost as soon as he got there. As we all know, Clemens then wangled his way into Yankee pinstripes and won two world championships.

Yet, as much as the New York fans appreciated his talents, they never fully embraced him the way they did Derek Jeter or Bernie Williams.

This tour of duty is different. This time it really is about being home, about pitching one night then driving 10 minutes up the road the next to watch his sons swing the bat.

Astros fans love Clemens, for his Texas twang, his devotion to his family, and his willingness to inject new life into their franchise. Unlike his previous stops, their love is unconditional, and no World Series ring needed for validation.

"I'm telling you, this is a made-for-TV movie," Hunsicker says. "It has been an instant love affair. Unless you are a Texan, or live in Texas, you can't probably appreciate the special bond they have with him. He was born in Texas, raised in Texas, and went to school here. He's already up there with Nolan Ryan, Earl Campbell, Clyde Drexler. He's a legend."

The Legend showed up for spring training all business. When young pitchers Wade Miller and Roy Oswalt thought they might be done for the day, they learned differently when the Old Guy kept jogging, kept doing wind sprints, kept looking at them as if to say, "What are you waiting for?"

This is tough to swallow for Clemens's many detractors in Boston, who remember a chunky, surly, petulant Clemens in the final days of 1996. Why his work ethic suffered such a damaging lapse at the end of his Red Sox tenure remains a major disappointment.

That Clemens is gone. The guy in the Houston uniform is strong, fit, and steely-eyed.

Naturally, his success begs the question: Why stop at this year? How much longer will Roger pitch?

"We're not looking too far down the road," answers Hunsicker, diplomatically. "We're just enjoying the moment."

The moment includes regular visits from former president George Bush, who sits in the front row and claps his hands like a delighted child when Roger mows them down.

It can't last forever, of course. Clemens will not go undefeated, nor is it likely his ERA will stay at 2.11. Once the privilege of facing him has passed, hitters will want to ruin his day. The second time Clemens makes the NL rounds with some of these hitters, it could be different. No matter. The city of Houston is behind him, seemingly through the good and bad.

That's what it's like when you finally do go home to Texas.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com. 

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