HOUSTON, AP July 15, 2004, 12:00 am TWN
Maybe Roger Clemens should've let Mike Piazza decide which pitches to throw.
Instead of a homecoming bash, the All-Star game turned into a bust for Clemens from the very start. MVP Alfonso Soriano and Manny Ramirez homered during a record six-run burst in the first inning and the American League cruised past the Nationals 9-4 Tuesday night.
"I put our guys in a hole," Clemens said.
Feuding with Piazza for four years, Clemens was forced to work with his nemesis this time. Piazza put down a series of signals and let the six-time Cy Young winner pick.
"Basically, I just try to roll through it. He stops me at what he wants to throw," the catcher said.
It didn't work too well for the Houston ace. Because after Muhammad Ali playfully jabbed at Derek Jeter during first-ball festivities, the slugging really started.
David Ortiz also homered and Jeter got three more hits as the Americans romped to their seventh straight win, not including the infamous tie in 2002. They closed their overall deficit to 40-33-2 and clinched home-field advantage in the World Series for the third year in a row.
Ichiro Suzuki led off the game with a double, Ivan Rodriguez followed with a triple and the rout was on. The Americans reduced the 41-year-old Rocket to a batting practice pitcher and a pained look, becoming the first team in All-Star history to hit for the cycle in an inning.
Soriano's second All-Star homer was a three-run shot off Clemens, his former teammate.
"I feel a little sorry because he's been nice to me all the time," the Texas second baseman said.
Clemens was gone by the time the game ended. AL manager Joe Torre said it was a little tough watching the former Yankees star get tagged.
"He certainly wanted to shine for everybody," Torre said. "I don't think the fact that he gave up six runs diminishes anything."
Much of the pregame buildup centered on the checkered past between Clemens and Piazza. Clemens beaned the New York Mets catcher in the 2000 regular season at Yankee Stadium, then threw the jagged barrel of a broken bat toward him in the World Series.
Even prior to the first pitch, it was clear their feud was still simmering.
Clemens and Piazza stood about five feet apart before the team picture was taken near the hill in center field at Minute Maid Park, but did not speak to each other.
And while winning pitcher Mark Mulder warmed up with Rodriguez, Clemens started getting ready with a bullpen catcher. Piazza came over and caught just a couple of pitches before leaving the bullpen for pregame introductions.
Before Ramirez hit a two run homer on an 0-2 delivery, Clemens and Piazza took several seconds to agree on what to throw.
"We were a little indecisive there," Piazza said.
Piazza applauded, however, when Clemens was honored by commissioner Bud Selig in an on-field tribute after the fourth inning. Piazza said he spoke with Clemens in the trainer's room before the game, going over hitters and discussing some things the catcher described as "personal."
"It was very amicable," Piazza said. "It wasn't awkward."
That said, Piazza never went to the mound while Clemens struggled and sweated. But when Randy Johnson gave up singles to Jason Giambi and Jeter in the third, Piazza walked out to talk with the Big Unit.
Second baseman Jeff Kent didn't help Clemens, his Houston teammate, by making a two-out error on Giambi's grounder in the first. Jeter followed with a single and Soriano homered for a 6-0 lead.
It was the biggest outburst in an All-Star game since Fred Lynn's grand slam highlighted a seven run inning for the AL in 1983.
Clemens could only stand there and signal for a new ball, an embarrassed expression on his face. He still got a nice ovation from Astros fans when he struck out Mulder with his final pitch of the evening.
Alex Rodriguez, one of eight players from the first-place Yankees on the AL roster, hit an RBI triple in the fourth.
Ortiz, who replaced Ramirez, homered in the sixth to make it easier for Torre. Boston boppers Ramirez and Ortiz became the first teammates to connect for the AL in an All-Star game since Cleveland's Al Rosen and Larry Doby in 1954.
"We stayed pretty aggressive," Torre said.
Jeter finished 3-for-3 after being elected to his first All-Star start. At 7-for-10, the Yankees shortstop has the highest average of anyone with at least 10 All-Star at-bats.
Sammy Sosa hit a broken-bat RBI single off Mulder in the first. By then, the teams had combined for more runs than in the other two All-Star games played in Houston, both at the Astrodome — Willie Mays scored in a 1-0 win for the NL in 1968, then Clemens pitched the AL to a 3-2 victory in 1986.
This was Clemens' ninth appearance in the All-Star game, a record for pitchers. But instead of the fastballing 23-year-old who threw three hitless innings in 1986, he was lost from the time Suzuki doubled on the third pitch of the night.
"Sometimes it happens to the best of them," NL manager Jack McKeon of Florida said.
McKeon, at 73 the oldest manager in All-Star history, got his last glimmer of hope in the fourth when the NL rallied for three runs.
Edgar Renteria hit an RBI double and St. Louis teammate Albert Pujols hit a two-run double off C.C. Sabathia to make it 7-4.
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