HOUSTON – Phil Garner is the first to admit he’s no longer surprised by anything Roger Clemens does.

“Somebody commented after he made one start (this season) that we were having so much trouble and “Rocket’ won a game for us today, that later we may see him on CNN saving the nation somewhere,” the Houston Astros’ manager said.

“And, you know what? It wouldn’t surprise you to see something like that because he is bigger than life. He’s just large like that.”

Although the country is beset by many calamities, the Astros wouldn’t mind if Clemens kept his focus on winning Game 3 of the National League Championship Series on Saturday against St. Louis. Having evened the series Thursday night in St. Louis, Houston is in position to take a lead with the city’s favorite son on the mound.

Clemens’ already considerable legend grew even more Sunday when he pitched the final three innings of the epic 18-inning victory over Atlanta in Game 4 of that division series, pushing the Astros into the second round. The 43-year-old right-hander had been ineffective in a Game 2 start against the Braves three days earlier but volunteered to make only the second relief appearance of his storied career when Garner ran out of relief pitchers.

Garner said he never thought how many more innings Clemens might have pitched had Chris Burke not ended the marathon with his homer in the 18th.

“It seemed to me like if we needed him to pitch 10 innings that day he probably would have done it,” Garner said. “The man never ceases to amaze me. He was going to do whatever it took and I don’t think I could have gotten the ball out of his hand anyway. It was his game.”

As remarkable as that performance was, Garner said he had come to expect no less of the future Hall of Famer.

“It’s phenomenal just to watch the man, what he does, how he prepares,” Garner said. “He’s a true star in my viewpoint. A true star is somebody who you just sense is bigger than anything you’ve ever been around. Not only because of what he does on the field but just his very nature.

“He seems to transcend anything that we do here. I’ve watched him across the field for a number of years and I’ve admired his skills as a player, but now that I know him a little bit, he’s a phenomenal athlete and a phenomenal character in our sport, maybe the best all-time pitcher.”

Despite his advanced age, Clemens showed there was plenty of gas left in his tank during the regular season. In 32 starts, he compiled a remarkable 1.87 earned run average, the best mark in the major leagues and lowest of his 22-year career.

Clemens’ 13-8 record was a testament to the often-woeful Houston offense, which saddled him with 11 no-decisions during a time when he compiled a 0.99 ERA. The Astros lost seven of the last nine games Clemens started, getting shut out four times.

Through no fault of his own, Clemens probably will be denied an eighth Cy Young Award, with either St. Louis’ Chris Carpenter (21-5, 2.83) or Florida’s Dontrelle Willis (22-10, 2.63) expected to claim that plaque. Clemens struggled over the final month, compiling a 4.33 ERA in five starts, primarily because of a strained left hamstring.

“It altered a few things,” Clemens said Friday before the Astros worked out at Minute Maid Park. “I don’t think I was as violent as I needed to be out there. Some of the results were not great.

“That’s when I use the word “frustrating,’ when your body breaks down or when my body doesn’t do what I’m asking it to do at my age. That’s when I start getting upset because I try to keep up with the Joneses. But the leg feels better. I hope my energy level will be high. If not, I’ll try to find other ways as far as drawing off the crowd or certain situations.”

Clemens has a somewhat checkered past in league championship series play, going 4-4 with a 3.94 ERA in 13 starts for Boston, the New York Yankees and Houston. He was the losing pitcher in Game 7 last year when the Cardinals scored three runs off him in the sixth inning-including a two-run homer by Scott Rolen-to erase the Astros’ 2-1 lead.

Clemens’ legendary focus was put to an all-time test a few weeks back when his No. 1 fan, his mother, Bess, finally succumbed to emphysema after a battle of many years.

“Things have changed for me over the last couple of weeks,” Clemens admitted. “There’s a big part of my heart that’s missing now with my mother gone. I knew I pitched for her but I didn’t realize how much that I did.

“Some of my will is gone but not all of it. You just look at things different. Every time I hear the (national) anthem, I think about seeing her face for the last time. That’s where I’m trying to draw my strength from, and I owe that to my teammates.”

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