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BOB RYAN

Rocket on target in debut

Clemens goes six, gets win for Yankees

Roger Clemens, whose return to the majors was delayed a week by a fatigued groin, fires the first of his 108 pitches in a victory over the Pirates. (RAY STUBBLEBINE/REUTERS)

NEW YORK -- It was a major league pitching performance. It may not have been a $4.5-million-a-month performance, but if you're the Yankees, that issue is a nonstarter because we're talking about Roger Clemens. Nothing about Roger Clemens is normal.

Roger went six innings against Pittsburgh yesterday. The Yankees spanked the Pirates, 9-3, and he was credited with his 349th career victory, which was of interest to him and the diamond historians in attendance. He also gave them an official quality start, which was of far more interest to manager Joe Torre.

A quality start, for those who don't know, is defined as a start of six innings or more with three earned runs or fewer allowed. In this case, it was exactly that. Clemens gave up a first-inning run on a single, wild pitch, and another single, and he gave up two more in the fourth when Jack Wilson's two-out, opposite-field gap double brought home Xavier Nady (single) and Ronny Paulino (walk).

The Yankees got him the go-ahead run in the fifth and he protected it stoutly, concluding his afternoon's work with back-to-back strikeouts of Nady and Ryan Doumit. In fact, he retired the final seven men he faced following Wilson's double.

"A great day for us," beamed Torre, adding that "Roger was not as sharp as he's going to be."

"I was just concerned about my body," said Clemens, who fanned an impressive seven while walking two. "That was the major concern. I knew that if I held up, I could give Joe a 100- or 115-pitch performance. [He threw 108.] I think each time out I can get stronger."

The body is very much an issue. Leg problems have plagued him in recent years, and his 2007 debut was pushed back a week when his groin acted up following his final minor league tuneup.

"Everything is dependent on the physical stuff," acknowledged Torre. "Today, there were no physical issues. I felt we weren't going to see him at the top of his game in the first outing, or maybe the first couple of outings. But as long as he came out physically fine, we just shrug our shoulders and go on to the next one."

Clemens faced 24 batters and threw first-pitch strikes to 12. His fastball was basically in the 91-92 range, with several under 90. He seemed to be in love with his splitter, recording five strikeouts on that pitch, although he did state that "some of the pitches people may have thought were splitters were actually two-seamers." Whatever it was, he struck out Doumit on three pitches in the fourth, all of them the split/two-seamer.

There were some hard-hit balls early on. Leadoff man Jose Bautista offered up a serious at-bat in the first, battling Clemens through eight pitches, the sixth very nearly a home run at the left-field foul pole and the eighth being a solid single to right. But he really had things going his way in the last two innings.

The W was circumstantial, as so many are. The fact is that the Pirates played an absolutely horrible game, handing the Yankees runs in a variety of ways. In addition to the two official errors (both damaging), they had various mental lapses and some very poor at-bats against Clemens and the three relievers who followed. As a bonus, the Yankees were able to pull off two double steals in the same inning (the sixth).

Had he faced a team actually playing something resembling major league baseball, it is conceivable we'd all be writing about Roger pitching just well enough to lose.

But it is all being folded into the Big Picture, and in that scenario the Yankees feel their season has finally begun. They are playing their best baseball of the season. The victory gave them their first five-game winning streak of 2007. They have won 8 of 10 and before long they expect to reach their first milestone, which is to get back to .500.

"Pitching gives you a better personality," Torre said. "It makes you feel better about yourself. When you have pitching, you can get one run at a time. You don't need the big innings because you're always behind. The hitters can have a better approach. You can do the little things."

Roger doesn't have to be Superman, just Reliable Man.

"I just want to help any way I can," Clemens declared. "It's a great ball club, not just a good ball club. Joe and I have talked. What I'm asked to do will supercede just going out there and winning games."

In other words, Roger says he is prepared to pitch to the cause, not just to the win. He knows that six good innings is what they want, and seven would be great. If he's feeling gassed in the fifth, he's supposed to tell them, not hang in there in the hopes of getting the W.

Now, you can either buy it or not buy it -- and we all know there are legions of Clemens haters and doubters out there -- but that's his current story and he's sticking to it.

Yesterday, Torre would have happily taken five, but Roger said he was good for a sixth, and he proved to be an honest man. He trotted back out there with his 4-3 lead and went 1-2-3, no sweat, finishing on a very high note with the aforementioned punchouts of Messrs. Nady and Doumit.

Whatever you think of Clemens, never forget that a man can't last 24 seasons as a major league pitcher if he doesn't know what he's doing. This was a highly unusual circumstance. Since he was not allowed to be a part of the team until he was added to the 40-man roster, he could not spend time at the ballpark on Friday. By way of preparation, he had one 30-minute cram session with catcher Jorge Posada yesterday morning.

"I can't say enough about what Jorge did today," lauded Clemens. "I tip my hat to him."

The sellout crowd of 54,296 gave him a great ovation when he finished up, and they even demanded a curtain call. Roger chose not to oblige, which was probably just as well. There will be more arduous tasks ahead than beating the Pirates.

"Now I get to take a little deep breath," he said. "I understand the excitement and the expectations, and there's a lot of both."

If what Roger has to give is worth $4.5 million a month to the Yankees, more power to them. But Jon Lester might give the Red Sox the same thing while being somewhat more cost-effective. It's something to think about.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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