Originally created 10/06/04

Ageless Clemens in top form



ATLANTA - Just when it seemed that the legend of Roger Clemens had run its course, he stepped out of retirement, won 18 games and led the Houston Astros to the National League wild card title.

In a season that will be etched in the memory of anyone who likes their pennant races to be equal parts fact and fantasy, the 42-year-old right-hander won his past six decisions down the stretch, beating division rivals while posting a 4-0 record and 2.57 ERA in September.

If history is an indicator, Clemens will be at his best this afternoon in Game 1 of the best-of-five NL Division Series against the Atlanta Braves. He is 11-7 with a 3.47 ERA in 18 postseason series and was 1-1 with a 1.29 ERA in the New York Yankees' division series win over the Minnesota Twins last year.

"He's Roger Clemens and he's supposed to dominate," catcher Johnny Estrada said. "I think it works out in our favor. Nobody picked us to even come in third place in our division, so this is like icing on the cake for us."

Clemens was dominating in his only start against the Braves this year, pitching seven innings and allowing two runs on four hits in Houston's 3-2 win at Minute Maid Park on Aug. 3. But in three other career starts against them, he's 0-2 with a 5.85 ERA.

"He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "You know what you're going to get against him. He's going to rear back and throw hard and mix in his split-finger."

If facing a six-time Cy Young winner isn't daunting enough, the Braves are matched against a team that closed with a rush, winning 36 of its last 46 games, the second-best finish in NL history, to claim the wild card over the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants. And if anyone thinks this Astros club is the same team the Braves have beaten in three previous division series - winning nine of 10 games - think again.

The Astros have an All-Star center fielder (Carlos Beltran), a pair of Cy Young candidates (Clemens and Roy Oswalt), and a second baseman (Jeff Kent) who has hit more home runs than any second baseman in major league history.

Combine those ingredients with a fiery, take-no-prisoners manager in Phil Garner, who replaced former Braves coach Jimy Williams at the All-Star break, and you have a club ready to win a postseason series for the first time in team history.

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com.