Each time Roger Clemens thought about retirement, he talked to his mother -- and kept pitching.
"She was always my first phone call to go out and work again," said Clemens, whose mother, Bess, died this week. "When I told her I thought 2000 would be my last year, she just continued to encourage me to go out and do what I love to do."
Clemens again planned to retire after the 2003 season, insisting on it for more than a year. It seemed certain that his start for the New York Yankees in Game 4 of the World Series was his last game.
Already with six Cy Young Awards, more than 300 wins and 4,000 strikeouts, the Rocket was ready to spend more time with his family and be home in Texas near his ailing mother.
That plan was altered when his hometown Houston Astros offered him a unique opportunity. He could keep pitching, and also have the flexibility to come and go as he pleased when it wasn't his turn on the mound.
Most importantly, Clemens had his mother's blessing and encouragement.
"And she was as worried for me as I was for her," Clemens said. "She was worried about how my body would hold up."
All Clemens did last season was win his seventh Cy Young Award and help get the Astros within a victory of their first National League pennant. He then leaned toward retiring again, but came back -- and at age 43 is 12-7 and leading the major leagues with a 1.77 ERA through 30 starts.
"He's a physical, mental and medical marvel," Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "The unbelievable part is that you don't see any decline. If anything, you see an incline."
Clemens was heavy-hearted on the mound on Wednesday, pitching after being by his mother's side earlier in the day when she died of complications from emphysema. He made his scheduled start against Florida in the key NL wild-card chase game because his mother told him to pitch.
After he walked the first batter on four pitches and gave up a first-inning run, Clemens didn't give up another run and left in the seventh inning with a 3-1 lead. He even drew a bases-loaded walk that put the Astros ahead to stay in their 10-2 victory.
"He showed what a true champion he is," manager Phil Garner said.
While that was a gusty performance pitching in honor of his mother, the Astros have become accustomed to brilliant outings by Clemens.
The only problem is that the Astros haven't backed up their ace with many runs. The victory against the Marlins was his first in seven starts, a stretch in which Houston was shut out three times. Clemens has been the starter in eight of the 16 games this season in which Houston didn't score.
"If he had any type of run support, he'd have 20 wins easily. He's been that impressive," catcher Brad Ausmus said. "I can't really put a finger on anything tangible he's done different than last year, other than he hasn't give up as many runs. ... He hasn't changed his approach, he hasn't changed his stuff. His velocity hasn't gone up."
No, it's just Clemens in his 22nd major league season doing what he always has done.
lowest ERA of career
Clemens has allowed two earned runs or fewer in 26 of 30 starts this season. The right-hander has never had a lower ERA over a full season, his best so far being the 1.93 mark for Boston in 1990, when he won 21 games but finished second in the AL Cy Young voting behind Bob Welch.