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'Changed' Clemens to start Game 3

'Changed' Clemens to start Game 3

HOUSTON -- When it comes to this time of year, the question always has to be asked: At 43-years-old now, how much time does the venerable Roger Clemens have left?

He'll be on the mound for the Astros on Saturday against the Cardinals' Matt Morris in a Game 3 National League Championship Series battle of right-handers at Minute Maid Park. And just as it has been since he first announced his retirement in 2003, his last year with the Yankees, every game and every pitch in the postseason has the potential of being The Rocket's last.

"Things have changed for me over the last couple of weeks," said Clemens, who finished his 21st big-league season with 341 wins, ninth on the all-time list and only one behind Tim Keefe, a 19th century right-hander. "There's a big part of my heart missing now with my mother [gone], but that's just the way it is. I knew that I pitched for her, but I didn't realize how much I did."

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Clemens' mother, Bess, died on Sept. 15 from complications of emphysema. He started that night at home and defeated the Marlins, but the remainder of the season has been a quagmire of Clemens dealing with his emotions, plus a strained left hamstring, which he said during Friday's workout is fine now, but had been "frustrating" and "disappointing."

"That's why I start getting upset, because I do the work and try and keep up with the Joneses," said Clemens, who is still obviously mourning the loss of his mom. "You have to have pride in what you do, or you wouldn't be doing it."

Still, Clemens wouldn't answer the question. If something has changed inside him, does that diminish the possibility of him returning next season for his third go-around with the Astros? After he left the Yankees and pitched what seemed like his final game in the 2003 World Series against the Marlins, Clemens said he was 99 percent sure he wasn't coming back. He did come back, following friend and teammate Andy Pettitte to Houston as a free agent.

"I'm not going to address that," he said. "I've been trying to shut it down for two years and I still can't answer that now. I'm glad I left that percentage point open."

Clemens said he still gets a charge out of the big events -- like pitching the last three innings in relief this past Sunday as the Astros ousted the Braves from the NL Division Series for the second consecutive season, this time in 18 innings on Chris Burke's walk-off home run.

It was Clemens' between-starts throw day coming after a blowout, 7-1, loss at Atlanta in Game 2 of that series. And Astros manager Phil Garner surmised that Clemens would have kept going that afternoon as long as he was needed.

"He never ceases to amaze me," Garner said on Friday. "And I don't say that jokingly. I say that in all sincerity. The look I saw on his face when he came off after both of the last two innings he pitched was total resolve. It didn't matter how long it was going to take, he was going to do what it took. I don't think I could've gotten the ball out of his hand anyway. It was his game."

Clemens cites games like that as the reason he continues to pitch.

"Those memories are enough," he said. "Worth the decision for me to get up off my couch and do this."

But in the next breath, Clemens said he can't explain the change of feeling in his gut since his mother died. She was there every step of the way two years ago, when Clemens ultimately tossed his 300th career win and 4,000th strikeout against the Cardinals at Yankee Stadium.

Last offseason, he explained that his only reason for not returning in 2005 was the fact that he wanted his mother to be present when he's inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. That will happen as swiftly as Clemens cuts the heart of the plate with a fastball, five years after he plays his last game.

But Clemens returned this season to record a 13-8 mark with 185 strikeouts and a Major League-leading 1.87 ERA. He now has 4,502 whiffs, second on the all-time list behind Nolan Ryan's seemingly unapproachable 5,714.

His ERA was the lowest to lead the NL since Greg Maddux -- then with the Braves, who had a 1.65 mark in 1995 -- and the lowest to lead either league since Pedro Martinez, then with Boston, who led the American League and the Majors with a 1.74 ERA in 2000.

Clemens has suffered through hamstring strains in both legs, plus groin and back injuries this season. But he can overcome the physical. It's the mental he seems more concerned about.

"Make no mistake about it," Clemens said. "Some of my will is gone, but not all of it. You just look at things differently. Every time I hear the anthem I think about her. I think about seeing her face for the last time and that's where I'm trying to draw my strength from. I owe that to my teammates. I still recognize and understand that the most important thing is to go out there and win. But you know, some things have changed for me now."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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