Astros pleased, not shocked by Rocket

Astros pleased, not shocked by Rocket

ST. LOUIS -- Within the clubhouse walls, the fact that Roger Clemens was going to sign with the Astros at some point this season was considered perhaps the worst kept secret of this millennium.

So when the players heard about the late morning press conference set to take place in Houston on Wednesday, they didn't exactly jump out of their seats, high-five neighbors and sing "Roll out the Barrel."

Players sat at their lockers, or in the cushy chairs near the TVs, or at large tables playing cards, and did their best to come up with other words for "happy."

"We're all gay about it," Lance Berkman said.

Sure, they're thrilled. But no one ever thought Rocket wasn't coming back to them. It was just a matter of when. Now they know: Clemens appears to be on track to make three Minor League starts and return to the Major League mound on June 22 against the Minnesota Twins.

"Oh my gosh!" Berkman exclaimed in an exaggerated tone. "We all knew it was going to happen all along. So it's no big shock to anyone here."

Still, among the giggles was the obvious undertone that the Astros just got better. When Clemens does walk through the clubhouse doors for the first time, arms will be wide open.

"Obviously, it's going to be a real big boost for us," Brad Lidge said. "He's a fun guy to be around all the time. He's always upbeat and he's a gamer. He's always ready to win. It'll give us a great attitude in here. He fits in great with the rest of us. People know what he can do on the field, but he's also a great leader in the clubhouse. I don't think there's really anything that's not going to help us tremdendously."

"Starting pitching wins championships," Brad Ausmus said. "We have those big three [Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte, Clemens] back on the mound for another three and a half, four months, [and] it will be a huge boost in reaching our goal."

Ausmus, like his teammates, wasn't shocked by the news of Clemens' return.

"I wouldn't say I'm blown over," he said. "I thought all along Houston made the most sense for Rocket. His family's there, he played there last year. It's in his hometown. He has the liberty to come and go as he pleases so he can spend more time with his family."

Even though publicly the competition for Rocket's services was a four-team race, most of those in Astros uniforms didn't honestly believe the Rangers, Red Sox and Yankees had an edge over the hometown team.

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"You're talking about three American League teams and one National League team," Craig Biggio said. "If I was him, I wouldn't want to pitch in the American League. It's just nine animals in the lineup. In the National League, it's a totally different game. You watch how dominant he is, how he pitches in the National League, it's pretty impressive. And, his house is two miles from the stadium. That has a lot to do with it."

The addition of Clemens gives the Astros the weapon that had the biggest impact on their World Series run -- arguably the best pitching trio in the league: Oswalt, Pettitte and Clemens. The order will likely remain the same this time.

"It's definitely encouraging," Pettitte said. "You've got to feel good about things. I've got to start pitching a little bit better and hold up my end of the bargain. It's not going to do anything but help this team.

"It's exciting. I think he's the greatest pitcher to ever play the game, so when the greatest pitcher to ever play the game is on your team, it's nothing but positive."

Clemens will continue to have the "freedom clause" that he enjoyed in his first two years with the Astros. In a nutshell, Clemens' presence will not be mandatory during road trips when he's not scheduled to pitch.

Rocket's teammates had fun with that provision on Wednesday before their game with the Cardinals.

"At least if we go another 18 innings, we'll have another relief pitcher to go to," Mike Lamb said, referring to the Astros' marathon loss in Pittsburgh last weekend.

"We might have to call him and say, 'We know you're on the 18th hole, but we need a guy in the bullpen,'" Berkman joked.

"Can he hit?" wondered Morgan Ensberg.

Biggio, 40, called Clemens, 43, a "freak of nature."

"The things he can do on the mound are amazing," Biggio said. "I just noticed when I played center field a couple years ago, watching the man pitch, that's the best seat in the house."

"My seat's better," Ausmus said.

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.