Not long ago, a friend called former Mariner Ken Phelps to tell him that Roger Clemens’ 20-strikeout game in 1986 was being shown on one of the cable networks.
“He said I should watch. I told him, ‘I still see it in my mind like it was yesterday,’ ” Phelps said.
In fact, it was exactly 34 years ago Wednesday that Clemens, at the time a highly promising but still unproven Red Sox pitcher, put himself on the baseball map. On one cool, magical night at Boston’s Fenway Park against the Mariners, with just 13,414 in attendance — the Celtics had a playoff game across town — he mowed down a Mariners lineup that had been struggling all season to make contact.
The legendary Rocket, just 23 and making his 39th career major-league start — his fourth since shoulder surgery the previous August that had put his star trajectory on hold — was born that night. In 111 years of recorded baseball history, no one had struck out more batters in a nine-inning game, and none would match that total until Clemens did it again in 1996 against the Detroit Tigers.
The loss was the Mariners’ 10th in their past 12 games, dropping their record to 7-13. Then-manager Chuck Cottier says now he had a gut feeling the end was near. Sure enough, Cottier was fired nine days later and replaced by a future Hall of Famer, Dick Williams. The irascible Williams didn’t coax any more success out of a promising nucleus of young players. The Mariners lost 95 games in 1986 — the 10th of 14 consecutive losing seasons for the expansion franchise.
After the 3-1 loss to Clemens, Cottier recalled getting one of his frequent postgame phone calls from Mariners owner George Argyros. This time, he didn’t answer.
“He was going to ask me why we struck out 20 times,” Cottier said. “What was I going to tell him?”
The answer probably would have revolved around Clemens’ dominating stuff. According to the speed gun of a Toronto scout, he was consistently hitting 95 mph and pumped it to 98 on occasion. Such heat was far less common in those days — and Clemens was painting the corners. I watched the game Tuesday on YouTube, and his combination of precision and power was devastating.
As Bob Finnigan wrote in his Seattle Times game account, “Twenty Mariners went down in various stages of strikeout — hard hacks, half hacks, late hacks, no hacks at all.”
Gorman Thomas, the Mariners’ designated hitter, told reporters afterward, “There were some guys going up to the plate that night that were literally shaking in their boots. … It was almost like a cartoon, where you see guys swing and the ball goes through their bat. It’s never going to happen again, I guarantee it. No way. It’s going to stand for the rest of major-league history.”
Thomas was the most successful Mariner that night with a solo home run and just one strikeout, but he whiffed with that prediction. Not only did Clemens duplicate the feat, but Kerry Wood (1998) and Max Scherzer (2016) would put up 20-strikeout games. So did Randy Johnson with the Diamondbacks in 2001, but it has an asterisk because the game went extra innings. Tom Cheney of the Washington Senators struck out 21 Orioles in 16 innings in 1962.
Which brings to mind one take-away from the game: It’s highly unlikely that in today’s baseball, Clemens would have been allowed to rack up a pitch count of 138 (97 strikes) so soon after surgery to repair rotator-cuff damage in his shoulder.
“That would have been a hard one for any big-league manager or pitching coach to stay with nowadays,” Phelps said. “But they didn’t care back then.”
Boston manager John McNamara, despite getting two relievers up in the eighth, stuck with Clemens. The intensity of the crowd grew as the game progressed, to the point that Mariners shortstop Spike Owen would recall the attendance as being more than 30,000, when it was actually a third as much.
Clemens struck out the side, all on 3-2 pitches, in the first inning, and added two more whiffs in the second, one in the third, three in the fourth, three more in the fifth (all looking), two in the sixth (to run his consecutive strikeout streak to an American League-record eight), two in the seventh and two in the eighth.
That gave him 18, a Red Sox record. The major-league record was 19, established by Steve Carlton in 1969 and matched by Tom Seaver in 1970 and Nolan Ryan in 1974.
“He was on fire, throwing great,” Phelps said. “I look back and watch my at-bats, and I had a lot of good swings. I just wasn’t catching up. He was whaling away. We kept hoping we could get to the bullpen, because (Mariners starter) Mike Moore pitched a great game.”
Which brings us to another take-away: Clemens was in grave danger of losing. When Thomas belted his two-strike homer in the seventh, it put Seattle up 1-0.
Moore had matched Clemens zero for zero, if not strikeout for strikeout. But after getting two quick outs in the seventh, he allowed a single to Steve Lyons, walked Glenn Hoffman (hitting .111), and gave up a three-run homer to Dwight Evans.
That was all Clemens needed. Before he went out for the ninth inning, teammate Al Nipper informed him he was one strikeout from tying the record. That was the first Clemens knew of it — “he looked at me and his eyes lit up,” Nipper would say afterward.
Owen, Clemens’ old University of Texas teammate, led off the ninth. To start the game, Clemens had decked Owen with back-to-back brushback pitches.
“I think he was trying to make us think, ‘Man, if he can do this to his friend, what’s he going to do to everybody else?’ ” Owen recalled to The Boston Globe on the 15th anniversary of the game. “He was telling us to get ready for a war.”
“That was when Roger was young and throwing hard, and he had it working that night,” recalled former Mariners third baseman Jim Presley from his Florida home. “I was coming up late in the game. I told someone, ‘I’m not going to be the one tying the record and be on ESPN for the next 30 years.’ I went up in two-strike mode and hit a dribbler.
“We had a bunch of big free swingers in there. We had guys go up hacking and slashing.”
Owen struck out flailing on an outside fastball for the 19th strikeout. And then Phil Bradley went down looking on a 2-2 fastball on the inside corner — the fourth strikeout of the game for the Mariners’ left fielder. But it didn’t break Bradley — he revealed years later that he had a Sports Illustrated photo of that strikeout hanging in his home.
The Fenway crowd went bonkers. Wade Boggs came over from third base to shake Clemens’ hands, even though there was one out to go. And it was Phelps, determined not be the strikeout victim that matched Clemens’ uniform No. 21. Phelps had gone down three times, but this time he managed a routine grounder to shortstop, as Boston teammates engulfed the jubilant Clemens.
“I was choking up almost to the trademark, just to make sure I put bat on ball,” Phelps recalled.
A frustrated Cottier told The Times’ Finnigan after the game, “Not Big Cy (Young), not Big Walter (Johnson), not anyone ever struck out 20 men in nine innings. Just one guy, only one. Tonight. Against us.”
Cottier would later grudgingly admit that even in defeat, there was something special about seeing such a magnificent outing. And as time passes, that feeling is enhanced.
“We had a shot at it, but Roger is a great pitcher,” Cottier said. “He’s one of those guys, like (Sandy) Koufax and (Bob) Gibson — the strong, power, winning pitchers — where the later in the game, the stronger they get. If you don’t get them early, you won’t get them later. You don’t see that nowadays, because starters only go five or six.”
There were a couple of notable oddities from that game. The Mariners’ best fastball hitter, Alvin Davis, sat out because of a shoulder injury. And the Red Sox’s usual first baseman, Bill Buckner, served as the DH because of a sore elbow. Don Baylor subbed at first and wound up dropping a pop foul by Thomas for an error. Given another chance, Clemens fanned Thomas to pad his total.
Dave Henderson (three strikeouts) and Owen (two Ks) would end up being traded to the Red Sox in August and play for them in the World Series. Clemens’ breakout continued as he started the year 14-0, finished 24-4 and was named the American League’s Cy Young Award winner (the first of seven) and Most Valuable Player.
As for the Mariners, they would strike out 16 times the next night for a two-game record. The struggles would continue all year, despite a cadre of promising young players such as Moore, Davis, Presley, Danny Tartabull, Ivan Calderon, Mark Langston and Matt Moore.
“Everyone was just trying to find their way,” Phelps said. “Any organization nowadays would love to have that many young guys who were that talented. They would have been encouraging them and staying with them. We didn’t have that in those days.”
For that one night, what the Mariners had was a front-row seat on history — just on the wrong side of it.