Another Blow-Up for Angels' Rocket

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are both nicknamed "Rocket," Angel right-hander Ismael Valdes and New York Yankee right-hander Roger Clemens. But one looked like an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Saturday, and the other looked like a bottle rocket.

Valdes was lit up for five runs on seven hits in four innings, his third subpar start, while Clemens claimed another chunk of history in pitching the Yankees to a 7-5 victory before 43,398 in Edison Field, dropping the Angels six games behind Oakland in the American League wild-card race.

Clemens gave up two runs on seven hits in seven innings to improve to 17-1 and extend his win streak to 13. He became the fourth pitcher and first AL pitcher since 1900 to win 17 of his first 18 decisions.

Clemens, who is well on his way to winning his sixth Cy Young Award, has not lost since May 20. The Yankees are 17-0 in his 17 starts since and are 24-3 in his 27 starts this season.

"He keeps himself in fantastic shape, and he has great mechanics," Angel center fielder Darin Erstad said. "If you were to design the perfect pitcher, he's built for it. He's honed the craft. He's figured it out."

That Clemens, 39, muzzled the Angels was no shocker; he has a 27-8 career record and 2.50 earned-run average against them.

His fastball still hits 95 mph, but Clemens doesn't rely on the pure gas that earned him his nickname in the 1980s. He rations wisely, setting up hitters with split-fingered fastballs and sliders and turning up the heat only when he has to.

Like in the first inning Saturday, when he struck out Garret Anderson and got Scott Spiezio to fly out with a runner on second. And the third inning, when he struck out Troy Glaus and got Anderson to fly out with two on.

And the fifth inning, when he got Glaus to pop out with two on to end the inning. And the sixth, when he struck out Orlando Palmeiro and got Jorge Fabregas to fly out after Adam Kennedy's one-out RBI double.

"Like most good pitchers, Roger has a cruise gear when he makes most of his pitches, but when things get hot, he goes to a second gear," Angel Manager Mike Scioscia said. "He made some great pitches to get out of jams. He battled his way out of the corner and minimized damage."

Valdes' damage-control efforts weren't as effective. Tino Martinez and David Justice opened the second with singles and scored on Jorge Posada's double to the gap in right-center. Enrique Wilson's two-out RBI single gave New York a 3-1 lead.

Paul O'Neill homered to open the fifth, a drive that glanced off the glove of right fielder Jeff DaVanon before reaching the seats. Bernie Williams walked, and Martinez was hit by a pitch.

Scioscia yanked Valdes in favor of left-hander Mark Lukasiewicz, who eventually walked Nick Johnson with the bases loaded to force in a run that was charged to Valdes.

After going 4-2 with a 2.42 ERA in seven starts since coming off the disabled list in early July, Valdes has been rocked for 13 earned runs on 26 hits in his last three starts, two losses and a no-decision.

Valdes (8-8) claims his shoulder is sound and he is not suffering from fatigue, but he does not look sharp.

"His velocity is good, but his command is not where it should be," Scioscia said. "If you pitch behind in the count to a talented group of hitters like that, you're going to get into trouble. But I don't see any red flags as far as injuries.

"You have to look at the whole picture. He's had a terrific season, and hopefully his last three starts are a bump in the road. He's not so far out of sync that he has to make major adjustments. He just has to execute his pitches and get his rhythm back."

The Yankees extended their lead to 7-1 in the sixth on Williams' two-run homer to left-center off reliever Lou Pote. It was Williams' 200th career home run and came in the same stadium where the Yankee center fielder hit his first big league homer, off former Angel left-hander Chuck Finley in 1991.

The Angels threatened in the ninth on DaVanon's sacrifice fly off reliever Mark Wohlers and Shawn Wooten's bloop RBI single off closer Mariano Rivera, but Rivera blew a 95-mph fastball by Glaus for strike three and save No. 40.

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