Rocket's appearance not a relief

Rocket's appearance not a relief

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.

"I think it's obvious, if you watched the last couple of days," Clemens said. "Any time you can give our guys in the bullpen, who are overworked, a chance, that's what you do. Once you get the ball in that situation, you want to make sure that you do well so your manager can trust you in that situation when he calls on you.

"I did it a couple of years ago in that long playoff game and I felt fine, too. It would be a lot different if it was a winning situation."

Clemens said that this relief appearance would not affect his preparation for his next start, which is scheduled for Wednesday night in Baltimore.

Fine. Clemens can be applauded for his willingness to pitch in when needed, for being a good teammate in difficult circumstances, for being willing to help in tough times. But no matter how many people try to characterize this relief appearance as a day at the office, it was anything but that.

Clemens now has 695 career appearances, 693 of which were starts. Starting pitchers who are on their way to the Hall of Fame are not routinely asked to pitch in relief, because they are too valuable in their regular roles. They are not asked to pitch in relief when they are 24, or 34, and most especially when they are 44.

It may well be true that Joe Torre's best option in the seventh inning Sunday was Roger Clemens. But what does that say about the overall well-being of the rest of the operation? The bullpen was overtaxed early in the season when the starters were regularly departing the games early. The starters subsequently picked up the pace, but there have still been issues in the bullpen.

Before Sunday's game, Torre said: "If we've had problems in the bullpen, it's been the scarcity of good counts for us." That's it: too many pitchers getting behind in too many counts.

The circumstances Sunday were affected by the 13-inning game on the previous day. But they were also affected by the fact that the Yankees, after winning 10 of 11, had been swept by the Colorado Rockies and then had split the first two games with the Giants, a team that had dropped eight straight before winning Saturday.

The Yankees thought they had turned the season around during that hot streak. But that was not completely the case. It is only late June, but their situation -- a sub-.500 situation once again -- grows more serious by the day.

That is why Roger Clemens, a legend still in uniform, a man headed for Cooperstown as surely as anyone who has ever pitched, could be found pitching in relief for the New York Yankees in AT&T Park on a pleasant Sunday afternoon in late June.

It was a sign not only of Clemens' good faith in volunteering for work beyond the call of his usual duties. It was also a sign of the Yankees' growing desperation in a season that refuses to consistently bend in their direction.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.