HOUSTON (AP) – Roger Clemens stroked his stubbled face and fixed his eyes on the reporter with the same glare that has unnerved thousands of batters over the past two decades.

After briefly walking away from baseball, the 41-year-old Rocket is as dominant and intimidating as ever, leading the majors with a 7-0 record for the Houston Astros.

“What’s the surprise?” Clemens asked, becoming increasingly irritated. “I would hope you’ve been paying attention for 20-something years.”

Clemens’ performance has some wondering whether this is 1986 or 2004.

He has emerged as the front-runner in the National League to start this season’s All-Star game, set for July 13 in Houston. On Sunday, Clemens could become the first pitcher since Boston’s Pedro Martinez in 1997 to win his first eight starts of the season.

To do it, he’ll have to beat longtime nemesis Mike Piazza and the New York Mets.

Clemens, not surprisingly, has little to say about facing Piazza again.

“He’s moved on to bigger and better things,” the six-time Cy Young winner said, “and so have I.”

Yes, The Rocket has been a revelation this season.

When Clemens walked off the mound for the Yankees to end the seventh inning in Game 4 of the World Series, nearly everyone assumed it was his final pitch after 20 years in the big leagues.

But in December, former teammate Andy Pettitte decided to sign with his hometown Astros. A month later, Clemens ended his retirement at 78 days to follow his buddy home for just $5 million a year.

That’s been quite a bargain for the long-overlooked Astros – Florida Marlins manager Jack McKeon called it “the best move I’ve seen a club make in years.”

Clemens has a 1.99 ERA, 52 strikeouts in 45 1-3 innings and an opponents’ batting average of .182. He’s also clearly been the same power pitcher he was with Boston, Toronto and the Yankees – his fastballs still clock in the 94-mph range in the fifth inning.

Attendance at Minute Maid Park is up nearly 9,000 per game from last season – two of this season’s three sellouts have come when Clemens was on the mound. In a city where football reigns supreme, baseball has finally generated a little enthusiasm.

“The town is abuzz and it’s kind of snowballed,” catcher Brad Ausmus said. “People talk about the Astros all the time. People pay attention. It makes it fun to come to the field.”

Most importantly, though, Clemens has added a sense of legitimacy to a franchise that has never been to the World Series in its 42-year history – or even won a playoff series.

“He’s energized everybody from the city to the club to the whole organization,” Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker said. “He’s just a special person and a special pitcher. There’s no question the confidence level of the ballclub has been lifted by the signings of the offseason. We expect to win every night.”

But for all of his lengthy accomplishments, Clemens is most pleased with being able to drive his burnt-orange Hummer only 15 minutes to and from work. For the first time in his career, Clemens can truly honor his long-standing promise to spend more time with his family.

As part of his one-year contract, the Astros included a provision that doesn’t require Clemens to travel until it’s his turn to pitch. He can even travel separately from the team to spend more time with his wife, Debbie, and their four sons: Koby, 17; Kory, 15; Kacy, 9; and Kody, 8.

“I’ve had a smile on my face every day, win or lose, to drive home in 15 minutes,” Clemens said. “I haven’t seen my yard this green in 20 years. I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is, balancing this and getting to see my kids play ball.”

Clemens’ kids are also getting to watch their dad play some pretty outstanding ball, too.

At this rate, Clemens will join Cy Young as the only pitcher to post such a low ERA after his 41st birthday. Only Young and Warren Spahn have won more than 20 games after turning 41.

“He can probably pitch this good until he’s 60,” Milwaukee’s Lyle Overbay said after going hitless in three at-bats against Clemens last month.

The Yankees certainly would have given him the chance if he’d wanted. But not even George Steinbrenner could’ve persuaded Roger Clemens from coming back to this sort of homecoming.

Too bad for The Boss. It might have been worth the money.