The final launch? Yanks' Clemens may make his final start today

Saturday, October 4, 2003

MINNEAPOLIS -- The New York Yankees will turn to Roger Clemens in a big game, possibly for the final time.

It would be hard to imagine a better choice -- the Rocket doesn't figure to get rattled by the deafening din at the Metrodome, where the Twins are 13-3 in the postseason.

"He's one of the best pitchers to ever put on spikes," Minnesota first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz said.

Clemens could be lacing 'em up for the last time today, when Minnesota and New York meet in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series after splitting a pair at Yankee Stadium.

The 41-year-old winner of 310 career games is adamant that 2003 will be his final season. If the Yankees can't win at least once this weekend, it will be his final start.

"I haven't thought of it that way," said Clemens, who is 23-12 against the Twins in his career. "I always think positive, so I'm going to think that we are going to win."

Even if New York makes it to the World Series, the last hurrah will come sometime this month.

"Hopefully, it's not tomorrow," Clemens said Friday before the Yankees took batting practice and tried to adjust to the dome's baseball-colored roof and extra-bouncy artificial turf.

It's a quirky, dingy place that's tough on opponents -- especially with a loud, capacity crowd that's expected to come close to 56,000.

"We hope they drop every popup we hit, but the odds aren't good," Mientkiewicz said.

These are, after all, the Yankees. A team that won 101 regular-season games, made the playoffs for the ninth straight time and has a roster stocked with experienced, accomplished veterans.

"They're not going to be intimidated, obviously," Mientkiewicz said.

Twins not intimidated

The Twins aren't either, though, having upset Oakland in the first round last year. Given little chance to win this series, Minnesota took the first game 3-1 Tuesday before losing 4-1 on Thursday.

"You can't get down, or you're pretty much beat already," said reliever LaTroy Hawkins, who earned the win in Game 1 with two scoreless innings but gave up two runs in Game 2.

Twins starter Kyle Lohse turns 25 today, so a win over Clemens would be a nice gift. The key for Lohse will be keeping his cool.

"He's excited. He should be excited. Why not?" catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. "If we can get him to calm down and make it through the first couple innings, we'll be fine."

Don't try to tell the Twins about pressure, either. They rallied from a 7 1/2-game deficit to win the AL Central and went a major league-best 46-23 after the All-Star break.

On Sept. 10, they were two games back of Chicago before winning 13 of their next 14 to clinch the division title.

"Every game in the second half was a must-win," Lohse said.

Clemens went 17-9 with a 3.91 ERA this year, winning four straight starts to finish the regular season. He's only 6-6 with a 3.46 ERA in 22 career postseason starts, but his competitiveness and bring-it-on demeanor are perfect for the playoffs.

"He's a big-game pitcher," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said.

Manager Joe Torre, who admitted he "hated" Clemens when he was on the opposing team, isn't looking forward to losing him.

"We're going to miss him," Torre said. "There's no question we're going to miss him. Is there a chance he'll change his mind? I guess there is, but I don't think that's going to happen. I think that's why he's enjoying it so much."

The Twins are struck by the passion Clemens still has at this stage of his career.

"After 20 years, I hope I'm still walking, let alone playing baseball," Pierzynski said in a sleepy clubhouse -- the Twins didn't arrive in Minneapolis until about 5 a.m. Friday.

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