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Formidable Astros trio poses challenge

Formidable Astros trio poses challenge

CHICAGO -- Greg Walker had 37 at-bats against Roger Clemens over his nine-year Major League career. But one matchup in particular sticks out from Walker's many baseball memories, coming during his final run with Baltimore in the 1990 season.

This moment perfectly defines Clemens' career-long dominance.

Walker was standing on the field when Cal Ripken Jr. walked out and told him that "the computer got you" and he was starting against "The Rocket." Walker paused for a minute, before telling Ripken that he didn't remember doing very well against Clemens in the past.

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"Cal looked at me and said, 'You are hitting a buck-80 [.180] against him, and the rest of us are worse,'" said the current White Sox hitting coach with a laugh. "He's just that good."

It's hard to define the most unbelievable fact concerning the Houston right-hander. His 341 victories? Pretty darn impressive. His 4,502 career strikeouts? A number that is off the charts.

How about the 43-year-old, pitching through his 22nd season in the Majors, posting the top ERA in all of baseball at 1.87? Whatever plaudits, accolades and compliments are heaped upon Clemens, the White Sox currently are viewing the future Hall of Famer simply as the Game 1 starter of the franchise's first World Series appearance since 1959.

And it doesn't get any easier for the South Siders after Clemens. Andy Pettitte, one of the most prolific pitchers in postseason history, works Game 2. The left-hander has a career 14-6 mark during the playoffs, including a 4-2 record and 3.90 ERA in the World Series.

When the series returns to Minute Maid Park, Roy Oswalt toes the rubber for Game 3. It's the same Oswalt with a perfect 3-0 postseason record in 2005 and at least 19 wins in three of his five full seasons.

"Everybody talks about Clemens and Andy, but they have another one that throws the ball better than them -- Oswalt," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said. "It's amazing with Clemens and Pettitte. Clemens still throws the ball well and maybe better than before. Andy was in the same position.

"We will face a pretty good pitching staff, and so will they. This game is going to be whoever executes better, whoever makes less mistakes and whoever gets the base hit with two out."

Factor in Brad Lidge, one of the best postseason closers over the past two years, and talented setup men such as Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler, and the White Sox will be going up against the top pitching staff they have faced to date in the postseason. So, how do the White Sox tackle this immense challenge, starting Saturday with Clemens?

Winning this particular battle, believe it or not, begins with the White Sox pitching staff. If they can shut down the likes of Craig Biggio, Morgan Ensberg and Brad Ausmus, the hitters will have less of an uphill climb.

"With their postseason experience, you will have to throw tons of zeros to give your team a chance to win," said White Sox starting pitcher Mark Buehrle, who is scheduled to start Game 2 at U.S. Cellular Field. "Clemens won't go out there and get rocked around too much."

"They have Clemens, Pettitte and Oswalt, so I guess you have to give them the edge," catcher A.J. Pierzynski added. "It will be tough to score runs, but our staff is right there with them."

As for the White Sox offense, Walker and three other everyday position players said the real preparation for Clemens begins Friday. They will sift through reams of scouting reports and watch specific video in an attempt to get a handle on Clemens' offerings or any other patterns he follows.

According to Walker, the White Sox were more worried about themselves over the past two days. With many of the White Sox hitters having faced Clemens and Pettitte while they pitched in the American League, there's already a slight advantage built in. Of course, the same could be said for the pitchers who have gone against the opposing hitters.

But at this point of the season, when the stakes are so high, there really are no secrets in baseball.

"In today's world, any pitcher we face, we have a lot information," Walker said. "The only advantage is that our guys have been in the batter's box against them.

"They have been scouting us for the past month and we've been scouting them for the same time. We know them and they know us."

Aaron Rowand was asked Thursday if he would talk to friends in the National League to get a read on pitchers such as Lidge. Rowand said it was a plausible idea, but added that "there's a book on every hitter, and pitchers approach each one a little differently."

When asked if Rowand had made any of those calls, he simply smiled and reminded the reporters that the Astros just won the National League pennant on Wednesday night. That important victory over the Cardinals allowed the Astros to line up Clemens for Game 1, giving an already electric atmosphere in Chicago a little greater boost of excitement.

Harold Baines is the best career hitter against Clemens, with a .305 average, two home runs and nine RBIs in 105 at-bats. Of course, Baines now serves as the White Sox bench coach. Where active players are concerned, Joe Crede has three hits in five at-bats against Clemens, including two home runs, while Paul Konerko is 8-for-18, with five doubles, two home runs and five RBIs.

The White Sox players are amazed by Clemens' vast body of work. They singled out Clemens' ability to reinvent himself by adding the split-finger to his repertoire. And this is a pitcher who the White Sox deemed as not worthy of taking a chance on prior to the 1997 season, when Clemens eventually signed as a free agent with Toronto.

Clemens has won 149 regular-season games from that point on.

"It's scary," said Crede of Clemens' continued dominance after adding the split-finger. "He was a great power pitcher then and to do what he did this year, with his ERA, it's awesome. Really unbelievable."

"He knows how to handle himself and prepare because he's a true competitor," continued White Sox utility infielder Geoff Blum. "When you add his age into the equation, he's really a freak of nature."

"I faced him from 1986 to 1991, and he's still playing," added White Sox general manager Ken Williams of Clemens. "So, where did I go wrong with my playing career? You have to tip your hat to him."

Williams said that he wanted to express condolences to Clemens on the passing of his mother, Bess, when he arrives in Chicago. He also had one more question, regarding the dream had by Clemens' mother before her death, in which Clemens said she saw "Shoeless" Joe Jackson.

"His mom had a dream that the Astros are going to play the White Sox," Williams said. "And I want to know who wins."

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

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