SAN FRANCISCO -- It's official. These must be desperate times, because the New York Yankees are using desperate measures. Any time the summer solstice has passed and you are under .500, you are in some serious difficulty. But on Sunday afternoon, as the Yankees fell to 36-37 and 11 1/2 games off the pace in the American League East, even this was not the ultimate signal of Yankee distress. The real sign that we had passed into an area of peril was the sight in the seventh inning of Roger Clemens pitching in relief. It wasn't a complete shock. Earlier in the day, manager Joe Torre had used the phrase "don't be surprised" about the possibility of the Rocket being used in relief. The Yankees bullpen had been heavily taxed in Saturday's 13-inning loss and Sunday was, after all, Clemens' day to throw between starts.
But still, this is a 44-year-old man, being paid a kingly wage to be a starting pitcher for four months of the six-month season. He was not brought back out of his annual semi-retirement to soak up relief innings. Clemens had volunteered for this duty, so the point is not that he was being pushed into an activity that he found onerous. The Rocket had made a postseason relief appearance with the Houston Astros in 2005, an 18-inning Division Series game in which he pitched three innings and won the decision. But his only other relief appearance in his long and illustrious career was in his rookie season of 1984, some 23 years ago. The Rocket is many things, but he is not particularly a relief pitcher. And the fact is, in what ended as a 7-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants, this latest relief appearance didn't go all that well. Clemens came in with the Yankees trailing, 3-1. He struck out Ray Durham. That was good. Then he walked Barry Bonds. That kind of thing happens all the time. But then Ryan Klesko singled, sending Bonds to third. When rookie Nate Schierholtz hit a long sacrifice fly to center, Bonds scored. Even though Pedro Feliz subsequently flied to center, this relief stint had slipped into the category of less-than-wildly-successful. On the other hand, Clemens' performance in the seventh was better than Kyle Farnsworth's in the eighth, when the wheels came off for the Yanks. Between three hits and two errors, three runs scored, two of them earned, and defeat was assured. Clemens had told Torre that he could pitch the eighth as well, but this offer was politely declined. Why Clemens, why the Hall of Fame starting pitcher working in relief? Torre disputed the notion that this was a "backs-against-the-wall" situation, and said that Clemens was simply his "best option" in these circumstances. The hope was that the Rocket would hold the fort, the Yankees would regain the lead, the game would eventually be in the hands of Mariano Rivera and all would be well. Plus, the Rocket had volunteered for this duty. "He volunteered," Torre said. "He told me he could give us 50 pitches. I said: 'Fine, we'll take 20.' "He's volunteered for a lot of stuff. Today, we took him up on it." Clemens said that, given the circumstances, the heavy usage of the Yankee bullpen, volunteering to pitch in relief was a natural thing to do.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.