Roger Clemens continues to defy the odds as he mows hitters down for the Houston Astros.

HOUSTON (AP) – 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 for more than a year that would be it. 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 NL 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 Wednesday night, 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.

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.

He has 340 victories, the most among active pitchers, and his 4,492 career strikeouts are second only to Nolan Ryan, another hard-throwing Texan.

“The numbers tell the story. He’s been absolutely phenomenal,” Garner said.

“I’ve run out of words to describe him,” Astros general manager Tim Purpura said. “It looks like he’s doing it with ease. But I know he’s gutting it out, running it out. … He’s conquered the mental side of it as good as anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Clemens is signed only through this season, and hasn’t said yet if he’ll pitch again in 2006. That’s not a decision he’ll make while grieving for the mother he often publicly shared his affection for, and who always encouraged him to keep pitching.

The Astros don’t expect Clemens to be with the team at all times, or travel to series in which he doesn’t expect to pitch, giving him extra time with his wife and four sons. Plus, he was close to his mother in Georgetown, Texas, and she even was able to attend a few games in the last two years.

That arrangement wasn’t a problem for other players. Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio even told team officials that they were all for it if it meant Clemens would be pitching for them.

“We have a group of guys who realize a lot of the reason he signed here was to be close to his family,” Ausmus said.

“The whole thing is OK. It’s OK with the team,” Garner said. “We don’t have to worry about what he does in between starts because we know he does his work. It’s evidenced by the way he pitches.”

AP-ES-09-15-05 1958EDT

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