2003-09-19 / Sports

Inside Pitch

By Bryan Hoch
Inside Pitch By Bryan Hoch

Roger Clemens- (AP/Nick Wass)Roger Clemens- (AP/Nick Wass)

• With time slipping away for the Red Sox to catch the Yankees in the AL East pennant race, a sense of focus has set in around the Bombers, who – if they didn’t already before – have their eyes securely focused on the prize of October.

Roger Clemens picked up his 308th career victory on Tuesday over the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards, allowing two earned runs over seven hits, and looked just about as strong as he has all season. It begs the question: if The Rocket can still fire bullets the way he is right now, even at the age of 41, why is he bowing out after this season?

Clemens says publicly that there’s no chance of a return to a major-league mound in 2004, and we take his word at face value. But pitching is at a premium in the big leagues today (and always), and it seems like a colossal shame that such a great talent will be leaving the scene in just a few starts.

Give Clemens credit for being able to walk away on top, when the usual mindset of an athlete is to push and push until there’s nothing left in the tank. With two starts remaining until the close of the regular season, Clemens (15-9) has a shot at walking away with a 17-win season, giving him 310 in his career to trail Tom Seaver by one.

And then, the AL Di­vision Series awaits. Clem­ens will likely be Joe Torre’s Game Three starter against the AL Central winner or the Wild Card club, depending on whether or not Boston’s able to seal up their race with the Ma­riners.

"It’s all about winning games," Clemens said. "Around here, it’s pretty easy to stay focused."

• As Lou Piniella worked the med­ia this week at Yankee Sta­dium, it was hard not to feel a twinge of regret that the Mets hadn’t been able to work out some kind of agreement to bring ‘Sweet Lou’ to Shea.

Yes, the Seattle Mariners were asking the moon in Jose Reyes as compensation for shipping Piniella to New York, and after seeing just what Reyes is made of, you can’t fault the Amazin’s for not parting with that kind of talent.

Nothing against Art Howe, of course – he’s a decent enough guy, and with the new young roster he’s ‘battling’ with, Howe seems to fit like a glove as a babysitter – but Piniella would have been that lightning rod personality that the Mets organization sorely lacks.

That’s all spilled milk, though. For his part, Piniella is making out pretty well in Tampa Bay and sees a bright future ahead for his scrappy Devil Rays club, a team that is built much better beneath the surface than its sub-.500 record would indicate.

21-year-old Rocco Baldelli leads all major league rookies in hits and is playing a great center field, while converted outfielder Aubrey Huff is having one of the best seasons you’ll never hear about, slugging over 30 homers and collecting over 100 RBI.

22-year-old Carl Crawford, whom Piniella called "the most improved player in the American League," rounds out Tampa Bay’s outfield, a ripe crop that Piniella thinks could someday rank up there with the Braves’ elite sluggers of Chip-

per Jones, Andruw Jones and Gary Sheffield.

"Would they ever have that kind of power? Prob­ably not. But they’d be a lot less expensive — for now," he laughed.

• Devil Rays reliever Mark Mal­aska knows great movies. Before last Saturday’s game, the eccentric lefthander sauntered around the Tampa Bay locker room quoting lines from the Adam Sandler flick "Billy Madison."

"That’s just a piece of cinematic work," Malaska explained. "They’re going to be studying that movie in film school for years to come."

To paraphrase the script: if watching that movie is cool, consider us Miles Davis.

• Food for thought: if not for the presence of Florida hurler Dontrelle Willis on the National League scene, the Mets would have three solid candidates for the NL Rookie of the Year.

Our picks go to bespectacled first baseman Jason Phillips (.304, 11 HR, 56 RBI in just 388 at-bats), hard-nosed third baseman Ty Wigginton (.257 average, leads team in runs, hits, doubles, triples and total bases), and the aforementioned 20-year-old wonderkid Reyes (.307, 5 HR, 21 extra-base hits and 13 steals before his season ended due to injury).

See, there is a reason to watch the Mets. Those three players could be an even bigger reason to tune in down the road.

E-Mail: bryanhoch@yahoo.com.

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