The final proof that the Rocket had indeed reentered New England’s orbit came in the eighth inning of the Toronto Blue Jays’ 3-1 win over the Red Sox yesterday afternoon, when Roger Clemens went toe to toe with Mo Vaughn, departed superstar versus incumbent hero, and Fenway Park echoed with this chant:
The sound was familiar but, under the circumstances, jarring.
Vaughn struck out, Clemens’s 16th and final strikeout in a K-studded performance exceeded only twice in his career: his two major league-record 20-strikeout games when he was still the Pride of the Olde Towne Team. The strikeout total set a Blue Jays record.
“He came to make a point,’’ Vaughn said, “and he did.’’
The Rocket’s return to Boston was even grander theater than anticipated, because for much of the afternoon Red Sox starter Aaron Sele matched his onetime mentor pitch for pitch, strikeout for strikeout.
“I don’t know what the arena was, but it was like the Christians or whatever out there,’’ Red Sox manager Jimy Williams said.
Sele struck out 11, matching his career high, and took a 1-0 lead into the seventh before paying dearly for his one mistake: a fastball that Shawn Green hit 440 feet over the visitors’ bullpen in right for a two-run homer.
After a soft single by Otis Nixon leading off the eighth, out of the dugout came Williams. And when he lifted Sele, the fans booed the manager as loudly as they have all season. Butch Henry proceeded to allow a Toronto insurance run on a walk and a bad-hop single past shortstop Nomar Garciaparra.
Meanwhile, Clemens, who spotted the Red Sox a first-inning run and gave up only three hits thereafter, was rendering a sellout crowd of 33,106 as conflicted as Vaughn with his brilliance. ``I was smiling and frowning at the same time,’’ said Vaughn, who was grazed by a Clemens fastball in the first inning, then struck out in his last three at-bats. ``If you’re looking for a war to go to, this time was the only time where, win or lose, it really didn’t matter to me. This war I’ll always remember as the best one I’ve ever had in my career.’’
Clemens struck out the side three times, punching out the last four batters he faced. Garciaparra, who singled on Clemens’s second pitch of the afternoon and scored on Reggie Jefferson’s bases-loaded infield out, struck out three times.
Every Red Sox starter whiffed at least once. Aside from three-time victims Garciaparra and Vaughn, Jefferson and Darren Bragg went down twice each, and Clemens got John Valentin, Wilfredo Cordero (making his first start since being suspended June 26), Troy O’Leary, Scott Hatteberg, and Jeff Frye once apiece.
Cleveland scout Ted Simmons said Clemens topped out at 98 miles an hour on the radar guns, with his fastball never dipping below 94. His forkball ranged from 88 to 92, his slider clocked at 89.
``It was like a super bout -- unbelievable,’’ Vaughn said. ``I lost that fight, but it was worth it, getting in there and going at it with a guy who competes like he does. He was coming at you with everything he had, from everywhere.
``Slider, forkball, fastball, two-seamer, hard forkball, soft forkball. It was do or die. I’m not trying to hit a single. I’m trying to get him; he’s trying to get me.’’
Only the finish was anticlimactic. Toronto manager Cito Gaston, sacrificing drama for prudence, lifted Clemens after eight innings. The Rocket had pitched a complete-game shutout against the Yankees last Sunday at SkyDome, then worked an inning in Tuesday’s All-Star Game.
``I know people were waiting for him to go back out there,’’ said Gaston, who used four pitchers to register three outs in the ninth, ``but when you’re paying him for the next three years . . . I’d made up my mind two innings before.’’
When Clemens first appeared on the field, 15 minutes before the start, to make the long walk from the third-base dugout to the visitors’ bullpen for his warmups, the fans were not of one mind, the cheers drowning out the boos, but just barely.
By the end, when Clemens walked off the mound and looked into the stands -- at his family? at Boston GM Dan Duquette? at Red Sox CEO John Harrington? -- the crowd spoke with one voice.
``He’s so focused, man, you’ve got to love that,’’ said Valentin, who had two of Boston’s four hits off Clemens, a first-inning single and fifth-inning double.
``You’ve got to cherish that. These are the kind of guys you can’t let go. You’ve got to miss it. You know what I mean?’’
From Bangor to Yarmouth, they know only too well.