This Day in MLB History: Roger Clemens Sets Record for Most Strikeouts in a Game

Rob Bradford
April 28, 2020 - 11:25 pm
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Could Roger Clemens have struck out more than 20 batters in a game? This is what you should know when starting this conversation ...

- On April 29, 1986, Roger Clemens set a major league record by striking out 20 Seattle Mariners in front of a crowd of 13,414 at Fenway Park. He would accomplish the feat again 10 years later, with three other pitchers (Randy Johnson, Max Scherzer, Kerry Wood) equaling the feat but nobody surpassing it for a nine-inning game.

- Entering that game the Mariners were not a good hitting team, having gone 64 innings without compiling consecutive hits. They would finish that April with the lowest batting average in the majors (.201). Clemens, however, had struggled against Seattle entering the game, losing both of his decisions while carrying a 9.58 ERA.

But this is where the wheels should start turning ... 

- The Mariners' batters finished 1986 with the second-most strikeouts in the majors. Today? The total would have given them the fewest in all of MLB. THE FEWEST!

It is a different brand of baseball. Different approaches. Different skill-sets. And there are a lot more strikeouts than when Clemens knifed through those Mariners hitters on that chilly, late-April evening. Considering all of it, it begs the question: How many batters would the Red Sox Hall of Famer fanned that night if it took place in this day and age?

SECOND INNING: After Clemens struck out the side in the first inning, Gorman Thomas jumped on a 1-0 fastball right down the middle and lined out to right.

Notes: 1. Thomas was the fourth straight hitter to take the first pitch against Clemens, with seven of the first eight Seattle batters ultimately laying off the starter's initial offering. After that. things changed. The second time through the batting order seven of nine batters swung at the first pitch, with the trend continuing the third time through the order (6-of-9). They got sick of striking out; 2. Rice was positioned on the warning track in left field, which you rarely see now. That ball is most likely over the head of any left fielder today.

THIRD INNING: Danny Tartabull grounds out weakly to second base on a 3-2 pitch.

Notes: 1. Tartabull swung away on a 3-0 fastball right down the middle, fouling it off; 2. The 3-2 count was on of six for Clemens through just the first four innings; 3. Tartabull's was the last of six straight hitters not swinging at the first pitch. (Old friend Ivan Calderon was not going to wait around to hack away.) This patience wasn't out of the ordinary, which of course is a far cry from 2019 which makred the highest first-pitch swinging rate since such a thing started being measured.

THIRD INNING: Steve Yeager flies out to centerfield on a 2-2 count.

Notes: 1. This was a legitimate instance of potentially adding to the strikeout total with home plate umpire Vic Voltaggio missing a pitch on the outside corner with the count 2-2. It was a theme for the night for Voltaggio, who did seem to call a good game. He was not giving Clemens pitches that appeared in the strike zone on the outside edge to righty hitters. Why? Well, compare Voltaggio's setup with right-handed hitters up -- on one knee while positioned almost behind the hitter, compared to today's umpires and you can pinpoint where this era of umpiring might have given Clemens those calls.

FOURTH INNING: Spike Owen singles on an 0-2 curveball.

Notes: 1. It was a baffling pitch selection by Clemens, who had just blown to fastballs by Owen. The slow curve seemed like the only way the leadoff hitter could come away with the result he did -- a sharp grounder between first baseman Don Baylor and second baseman Marty Barrett. Today's analytics wouldn't have allowed that pitch; 2. Also, if Barrett is being positioned with this cavalcade of shifts than there is a good chance this is actually an out.

- Speaking of Baylor ... It is in this inning that he drops the most routine of pop-ups off the bat of Thomas, allowing for Clemens to strike out the side. This season was marking the first time in three years Baylor was being summoned to play in the field. Put it this way: I can't remember seeing a first baseman in the last few years unable to handle the kind of easy opportunity Baylor botched.

SIXTH INNING: Spike Owen two-out fly out to centerfield on 1-1 fastball.

Notes: 1. Owen was undeniably the toughest member of that Seattle lineup to strikeout, fanning once every 10 at-bats. Seven other hitters in that batting order fanned on average once every four at-bats or worse. Yet would the light-hitting shortstop be a leadoff hitter in this era of baseball just because he put the ball in play? Probably not. That would likely have been Phil Bradley (the No. 2 hitter), who struck out all four times he came to bat against Clemens; 2. The Owen out ended a string of eight straight strikeouts by Clemens. The remarkable thing about most of the strikeouts were that most were offered in the heart of the plate, with the Red Sox' pitcher just challenging Seattle's hitters. Not like today's pitchers, whose goal is to get hitters to chase outside the zone.

SEVENTH INNING: Gorman Thomas solo home run to centerfield on 1-2 fastball.

Note: This is a case where Clemens simply went after the free-swinging Thomas with a heater right in the heart of the plate instead of expanding the zone. He didn't miss his spot. That's where Rich Gedman was set up. This was simply all about the attitude that served him well for most of the night, including the pitch before which had resulted in a swing and miss. It should be noted that Clemens came right back with the exact same offering on the first pitch to the next batter.

SEVENTH INNING: Jim Presley weak ground out to first on 0-1 curveball.

Note: This was the second time Clemens mixed in a curveball to a hitter that seemingly couldn't handle the heater, resulting in bat on ball.

EIGHTH INNING: Danny Tartabull base hit on 1-1 fastball.

Notes: 1. This should have been an 0-2 pitch but the umpires completely missed an obvious swing, saying Tartabull had held up; 2. With it being just the second baserunner of the game one thing that went unnoticed was how much Clemens balked on virtually every pitch (at least by modern-day standards).

EIGHTH INNING: Al Cowens lines out to centerfield on a 1-1 fastball.

Note: Cowens, who was pinch-hitting for Yeager, had seen his best days but at least was somewhat of a contact hitter. What would have been interesting was if Cowens' liner dropped. If that was the case Clemens would have been sitting at 124 pitches with the tying run standing on first base and late-inning relievers Bob Stanley and Joe Sambito having warmed up throughout the inning. The willingness to leave him in was because Dwight Evans' three-run homer had given the Red Sox a two-run lead and the big league strikeout record was in is sights after getting No. 18 with the second out of the eighth. Today? Well, let's just say the most pitches thrown by a pitcher in 2019 was during Mike Fiers' no-hitter (131), with only two pitchers totaling Clemens' total for this game (138) in the last 10 years.

NINTH INNING:  Ken Phelps ends the game with a ground out to shortstop on a 2-1 fastball.

Note: Even though Clemens entered this at-bat at 134 pitches he wasn't coming out considering the righty could add one more strikeout without anybody on base. What shouldn't be lost was that despite the pitch total he would go on to pitch eight innings or more in 10 of his next 11 starts.

TAKEAWAYS

- What was remarkable was how Clemens just simply attacked the hitters, throwing very few offspeed pitches, while also barely making Gedman's glove move. This was a bravado you simply don't see nearly as much these days against any quality of big league opponent.

- The only real strikeout-that-got-away was Yeager's third-inning at-bat when Voltaggio missed the 2-2 pitch.

- The shifting of the strategy by the Mariners after the first time through order -- swinging at 13 of Clemens' next 19 first pitches -- showed they were at least trying to avoid the inevitable. The pitcher's stuff was just too good, as we evident by the eight straight strikeouts coming with Seattle almost always swinging at the initial offering.

- Maybe Clemens gets one or two more strikeouts if he doesn't mix in curveballs to Owen and Presley, but that's nitpicky. This was all about stuff and location. And even with all the differences 34 years later, that is something that would have yielded relatively the same results.

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