NEW YORK (AP) — Roger Clemens popped out of the clubhouse in full uniform about 55 minutes before his first pitch yesterday, bouncing down a Yankee Stadium hallway with his cleats click-clacking on the cement floor.
The Rocket was antsy, excited — and a little rusty once he stepped on the mound. But he was good enough to win, and that's all that matters to the New York Yankees.
Clemens shook off some early struggles and gave the surging Yankees the lift they were looking for, leading them to a 9-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates in his long-awaited season debut.
"It's just great to be back," Clemens said, sitting at the postgame podium with his two youngest sons. "It felt like old times."
Pitching in pinstripes for the first time in four years, Clemens labored through the first few innings but was more effective as the afternoon wore on. He struck out seven in six solid innings and retired his final seven batters, leaving with a signature fist pump just before receiving a playful tap on the rear from Derek Jeter.
Making his latest comeback, the 44-year-old Clemens allowed three runs, five hits and two walks against the punchless Pirates, who entered with the lowest on-base percentage in the National League (.312).
"He's not as sharp as he's going to be," New York manager Joe Torre said. "Certainly as we get down the road here, your expectations are higher for him."
Alex Rodriguez drove in two runs for the Yankees, who have won a season-best five straight and eight of 10 overall. Robinson Cano had three hits.
Clemens struck out Ryan Doumit with his 108th and final pitch, pumped his fist in familiar fashion and then walked slowly to the dugout as Elton John's "Rocket Man" played over the loudspeakers. Jeter ran up behind his teammate, spun excitedly and tapped him with his glove.
That's the kind of spark and enthusiasm the Yankees (29-31) hoped Clemens' presence would provide after they slumped through the first third of the season.
For one day at least, it did.
"It was awesome," Rodriguez said. "I think all 24 guys were a little bit in awe. It was great."
After spending the past three seasons with his hometown Houston Astros, Clemens came out of retirement again when he agreed May 6 to a prorated, one-year contract with the Yankees worth $28,000,022 — the last two digits matching his uniform number.
The seven-time Cy Young Award winner had three tuneups in the minors and was originally scheduled to return to the Yankees last Monday at the Chicago White Sox, but that outing was pushed back because of an ailing groin.
"My biggest hurdle was my legs today. I just don't want to go backward with that," Clemens said. "I expect to get stronger each time from here out."
Clemens, who helped New York to two World Series titles and four American League pennants from 1999 to 2003, got a huge hand from the sellout crowd of 54,296 as he walked to the mound. Just before the first pitch, Jeter came in from shortstop for a quick chat and a pat on the chest.
"We had a good laugh," Clemens said. "He's one of the reasons why I chose to put my spikes back on."
Though his low-90s fastball was far from overpowering, Clemens (1-0) earned his 349th win — eighth on the career list. He finished the day with 4,611 career strikeouts, passing Randy Johnson for second place behind Nolan Ryan (5,714).
The Rocket also improved to 6-1 in nine starts against Pittsburgh, eight with Houston.
"I certainly didn't see any rust on his split-finger," Doumit said. "I didn't think his fastball was where he wanted it to be, but he's 44 years old. That splitty was on point."
Brian Bruney, Kyle Farnsworth and Luis Vizcaino finished up with scoreless relief.
Clemens gave up a clean single in the first to leadoff batter Jose Bautista, who advanced to second on a wild pitch and scored on Adam LaRoche's two-out single.
The Yankees quickly gave Clemens a 3-1 lead in the bottom half. Jeter's double put runners at second and third before Rodriguez hit an RBI groundout. Jeter scored on Jorge Posada's single, and Cano added an RBI single off Paul Maholm (2-9).
Clemens couldn't hold it. With two outs in the fourth, he walked light-hitting Ronny Paulino before Jack Wilson hit a two-run double over right fielder Bobby Abreu's head to tie it 3-3.
Posada's bases-loaded sacrifice fly in the fifth put the Yankees ahead, and they made it 6-3 in the sixth on Abreu's RBI single and Rodriguez's sacrifice fly off John Grabow.
Cano opened the bottom half with a double and the Yankees added two runs on a throwing error by left fielder Jason Bay and an RBI grounder by Johnny Damon.
Maholm dropped to 0-5 in his past six starts.
"The most disappointing thing today is that defensively we didn't play well," Pirates manager Jim Tracy said. "You're not going to beat this team playing like that."