"He clearly wasn't the Rocket that we've seen," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "He never really got into a groove, never really got comfortable."
Clemens had a library of excuses he might have turned to. A mist that started falling during batting practice and lingered all night left the mound sticky and the baseball slick. He has been getting treatment for a sore left hamstring, and has been struggling for several weeks to corral his command.
As usual, Clemens did not use any of those outs. He said it came down to execution.
"The home run is what killed us," Clemens said.
Ah, the home run. The Astros were leading, 1-0, and the Braves were playing for one run in their half of the second inning when the game suddenly, and shockingly, got away.
Andruw Jones led off with a single and moved to second on LaRoche's sacrifice. After a walk to Jeff Francoeur, Clemens struck out Ryan Langerhans but fell behind in the count to McCann, 2-0.
"We knew Smoltz was on deck," said Astros catcher Brad Ausmus, referring to Atlanta's starting pitcher John Smoltz. "We were just trying to throw a fastball down and away, and I think it just kind of cut a little bit. It came back in the middle a little more than we wanted it to."
A lot more. Clemens' 93-mph fastball never made it to Ausmus' mitt, as McCann sent a 409-foot home run to right field for a 3-1 Atlanta advantage that stood as the game-winner.
Braves manager Bobby Cox put it this way: "When you get a pitch, you got to hit the darn thing."
Clemens called it "a very hittable pitch."
"Guys on this level, whether he's 21 or 41, are going to hit that," Clemens said. "He took advantage of it.
"I've given up some home runs in my career, but it was probably pretty exciting for that kid. I know the crowd definitely got into it, and that's what you want to keep away from when you're pitching on the road."
Never mind the fact McCann is a rookie who has never stood in the batter's box against Clemens, or that he was 14 weeks old when Clemens made his Major League debut with the Red Sox in 1984. McCann's home run was an impressive feat no matter who he was.
Consider that Clemens, who led the Majors with a 1.87 ERA, held opponents to a .198 batting average in the 2005 regular season. He is the only pitcher in the Majors this season, and just the fifth this decade, to hold opponents under the Mendoza Line.
Break down those numbers further and you learn that Clemens held opponents to a .133 average (10-for-75, 11 RBIs) with runners in scoring position and two outs. No. 8 hitters batted .135 (10-for-74, one home run) against him.
McCann bucked all of those odds.
"It's a surprise," Garner said. "[Clemens] is very good in close ballgames at not getting hurt with the longball. It gives you a clue that he was struggling a little bit with his location."
Clemens tried everything to find a rhythm. Near the end of his outing, he started bringing his hands over his head during the wind-up, something he said he has not done in years.
He continued to insist that his sore left hamstring is a non-issue, but struggled again to command his suddenly heavy pitches. In six games since the start of September, including his final five regular-season starts, Clemens has a 5.06 ERA.
"My ball was running and cutting, which it has been the last two or three weeks," he said. "You're just turning the ball over in your hand, trying to get one to track on a line."
Clemens is winless in five regular-season starts against the Braves in his career, but before Thursday, he was 2-0 against them in the postseason. He beat the Braves in Game 1 of last year's NLDS and outdueled Smoltz for the win in Game 4 of the 1999 World Series.
The good news is that the Astros still hold the edge in the series, which is 1-1 and heading back to Houston for two games at Minute Maid Park.
If the Astros rally into the National League Championship Series, Clemens will pitch on. If they do not, Clemens will once again face the decision of whether to retire.
"This team has goals, and we're still trying to attain them," Clemens said.