Red Sox Memories: When Roger Clemens struck out 20 batters…twice

CIRCA 1988: Roger Clemens #21 of the Boston Red Sox pitching during a game from his 1988 season with the Boston Red Sox. Roger Clemens played for 24 years with 4 different teams, was an 11-time All-Star, 7-time Cy Young Award winner and was the 1986 American League MVP.(Photo by: 1988 SPX/Diamond Images via Getty Images)
CIRCA 1988: Roger Clemens #21 of the Boston Red Sox pitching during a game from his 1988 season with the Boston Red Sox. Roger Clemens played for 24 years with 4 different teams, was an 11-time All-Star, 7-time Cy Young Award winner and was the 1986 American League MVP.(Photo by: 1988 SPX/Diamond Images via Getty Images) /

Prior to 1986, no pitcher had struck out twenty batters in a single nine-inning game. While pitching for the Boston Red Sox, Roger Clemens did it…twice.

Anyone who has read enough of my articles will know that I’ve got a soft spot for the Red Sox teams of the 1980s and that several of my favorite players were on the team during that decade. One of those players, as I’ve written about many times, is Roger Clemens. From 1984 to 1996, he was the ace of the Red Sox rotation and compiled some truly eye-popping numbers.

During his thirteen seasons in a Red Sox uniform, Clemens won 192 games and accumulated 2,590 strikeouts, both franchise records that still stand. He also won three American League Cy Young Awards (1986, 1987, 1991) with the team as well as the American League MVP in 1986.

In addition to those numbers and the ones he racked up after he left the Red Sox, Clemens set one of the greatest records for pitchers in Major League Baseball. On April 29,1986, he struck out twenty batters in a single nine-inning game. No one had ever done it before and Clemens did it early in the magical 1986 season.

I was only six years old at the time, a budding Red Sox fan, and I didn’t watch the game. I do remember seeing highlights of it the next day on the news and hearing everyone talk about it at school, though. Ten years later in his last season with the Sox, Clemens did it again on September 18, 1996. No one had ever done it before he did and he ended up doing it twice. That one I definitely remember as I was sixteen and a senior in high school.

Since Clemens accomplished the feat, two pitchers have matched his record: Kerry Wood (Chicago Cubs) on May 6, 1998, and Max Scherzer (Washington Nationals) on May 11, 2016.

Randy Johnson also accomplished the feat while with the Arizona Diamondbacks on May 8, 2001, but since the game went into extra innings it wasn’t classified as a nine-inning game by MLB scorekeepers, it’s not included in the record books.

Still, to this day Clemens is the only pitcher in MLB history to have done it twice. With no new Red Sox baseball on the horizon and baseball withdrawals causing me to watch old games on YouTube, I decided to take a trip down memory lane with Clemens’ two twenty strikeout masterpieces.

I watched both of these games in full on YouTube and took notes, so without further ado let’s go back in time to those two nights when Roger Clemens was in the zone and mowed down twenty batters in a game…twice.

(Click on the dates below to view the box scores for the two games)

April 29, 1986

On a windy early season night, the sparse crowd of 13,414 at Fenway Park had no way of knowing that they were about to witness baseball history. It was an unremarkable April game against a mediocre Seattle Mariners team.

The temperature was in the mid-50s but a steady breeze blew in from the outfield…a good night for pitchers, a bad night for hitters having to hit into the wind. It didn’t matter anyway with how Clemens would pitch this evening.

First, a little background. Coming into this game, the Red Sox were 9-8 on the season while the Mariners were 7-12. Clemens came into the game with a 3-0 record (with three complete games), a 1.85 ERA, 19 strikeouts, and 10 walks in 24.1 innings pitched. However, to that point in his career, he was 0-2 against the Mariners with a 9.58 ERA. Nobody could have foreseen that he was about to make history on this otherwise nondescript night.

Here’s how the game went down after I watched it again and took notes:

First Inning: Clemens got to full counts on all three batters he faced in the opening frame before striking them all out. While his stuff looked good, his control was a bit off (he threw several pitches high and tight on batters). Three Ks.

Second Inning: Two more Seattle hitters struck out in the second. In particular, Clemens used his nasty breaking ball to great effect. He also was painting the edges of the plate and not just relying on his overpowering fastball. Five Ks.

Third Inning: This was the only inning where Clemens only struck out one batter. By now, though, he was at six strikeouts in only three innings and the sparse crowd had started to notice They were really loud from here on out! Six Ks.

Fourth Inning: Clemens gave up a leadoff single and looked to perhaps be in the beginning stages of some trouble, but he then mowed down the next three batters to get out of the inning. The crowd definitely knew something special was happening. Nine Ks.

Fifth Inning: A 1-2-3 inning…Clemens simply used everything in his arsenal to send the three Seattle hitters down in order. Twelve Ks.

Sixth Inning: Clemens got the first two Mariners to strike out, running his consecutive strikeout record for the game to eight in a row. Also, by striking out Steve Yeager as the second batter of the inning, he struck out everyone in the Seattle starting lineup at least once. Fourteen Ks.

Seventh Inning: This was the only inning where Clemens got into trouble. He struck out the first two batters he faced and had run the count to 0-2 on Seattle DH Gorman Thomas before Thomas took Clemens’ third pitch deep to dead center field for a solo home run. That gave the Mariners a 1-0 lead and while Clemens got out of the inning by retiring the next batter, he was noticeably upset with himself, throwing his glove into the dugout as he walked back.

The sixteen strikeouts to this point broke Clemens’s own record for most strikeouts in a game which was fifteen, set on August 21, 1984, against the Kansas City Royals. The Red Sox team record for strikeouts in a game was seventeen set by Bill Monbouquette in 1961 and the major league record was nineteen set by Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, and Nolan Ryan. Sixteen Ks.

In the Red Sox half of the inning, their first two batters (Rich Gedman and Marty Barrett) were quickly retired. With two outs, Steve Lyons singled and Glenn Hoffman walked. That brought up Dwight Evans who crushed a pitch to dead center field for a three-run homer and a 3-1 Red Sox lead. Interestingly, Sox skipper John McNamara had relievers Sammy Stewart and Joe Sambito warming up in the bullpen as the Red Sox batted.

Eighth Inning: Clemens struck out the first two Mariners batters to set the new Red Sox team record for strikeouts in a game. The only Seattle hitter in the entire game who didn’t strike out was Al Cowens, who pinch-hit for Yeager and flied out to center field in his only at-bat. Eighteen Ks.

Ninth Inning: Clemens struck out Spike Owen and Phil Bradley (the latter for the fourth time in the game!) to set the new major league record for strikeouts. The game ended when Clemens got Ken Phelps to ground out to Red Sox shortstop Ed Romero (who had pinch-run for Hoffman in the seventh). Twenty Ks.

Clemens final line for the game: 9 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 20 K (138 pitches, 97 for strikes)

As soon as the game ended, the crowd went crazy and gave Clemens a standing ovation as his teammates swarmed him on the mound. In the early part of a season in which nobody expected anything out of the Red Sox (they were predicted to finish in fifth place that year), Clemens’ achievement and dominant pitching set the tone for a magical season that came up just a hair short of the ultimate prize.

Some other random notes from the game. The total game time was two hours and twenty minutes, downright brisk by comparison to today’s games which routinely top three hours. Granted this was a pitcher’s duel (Seattle’s Mike Moore was very good, going 7.1 innings and only allowing the three runs on Evans’ home run while striking out four on eight hits and four walks), but the game speed was a pleasure to behold.

Batters stayed in the box or stepped out only for a moment before stepping in. Both pitchers pitched in rhythm, especially Clemens. As soon as he got the sign, he began his wind-up…no dithering or taking twenty seconds between pitches. The Red Sox were still struggling to find their identity early in the season and it showed in this game.

Jim Rice was thrown out by a mile (on an impressive strike ’em out/throw ’em out) trying to stealing second base early in the game and Dwight Evans was thrown out running to second on a botched hit and run when Wade Boggs didn’t swing at the pitch. The Red Sox also threatened a few times prior to the seventh inning but couldn’t convert until Evans hurt Moore and the Mariners.

Clemens would run his record to 14-0 before suffering his first loss of the season and he finished the 1986 season with a 24-4 record, a 2.48 ERA, and 238 strikeouts while winning his first AL Cy Young award and the AL MVP award.

I’ll always love the 1986 Red Sox and Roger Clemens will always be one of my favorite pitchers. Watching this game again after so many years brought back so many great memories and even more than that, it was truly awe-inspiring. Clemens was in complete control and a true master of his craft on that windy April night.

September 18, 1996

Almost ten years and five months to the day after Clemens struck out twenty Seattle Mariners at Fenway Park, he took the mound at Tiger Stadium in Detroit for this late-season game. The Red Sox were 77-73 and in the Wild Card hunt a year after they won the AL East with an 86-58 record. The Tigers, on the other hand, were 51-100 and in dead last place in the AL East (remember, this was before the last round of expansion and before Milwaukee moved to the National League).

Also, before we get to the game itself, some interesting notes on the two teams. This was the final season of Hall of Famer Alan Trammell‘s twenty-year career. Former Tigers and Angels manager Brad Ausmus was the catcher for Detroit in this game and current MLBPA head Tony Clark was at first base.

On the Red Sox side, in addition to 1990s stalwarts Mike Greenwell, Mo Vaughn, and John Valentin, the Red Sox also had Jose Canseco as their DH (in his second and final Red Sox season) and young rookie Nomar Garciaparra at shortstop. As for Clemens, he was making what would end up being his third-to-last ever start for the Red Sox and was matched up against Detroit rookie pitcher Justin Thompson.

Here’s how the game went based on my notes after I watched it again:

First Inning: Game time temperature was 70 degrees and there was a light breeze blowing across the outfield. Unlike Clemens’ 1986 game, this one didn’t start out quite as dominantly. He induced a ground out to lead off the game before Trammell singled. However, Clemens struck out the next two batters to get out of the inning unscathed. Two Ks.

Second Inning: The first strikeout of the inning came on a dropped third strike, a ball in the dirt that the batter swung at. Red Sox catcher Bill Haselman chased it down and threw to first to complete the strikeout. Clemens then struck the next two batters out to finish the inning and earn his fifth straight strikeout of the game thus far. Five Ks.

Third Inning: In the years since his first twenty strikeout game, Clemens had added a split-finger fastball to go along with his fastball, breaking ball, and curveball. He used it to great effect in this inning, painting the corners of the plate with devastating precision. After inducing the first out via a groundout to shortstop, Clemens struck out the next two batters using his entire repertoire. His split-finger fastball and breaking ball, in particular, were nasty. Seven Ks.

Fourth Inning: The Red Sox finally scored in the fourth. After back-to-back singles from Valentin and Greenwell, Rudy Pemberton drove them both in with a flare double to right field. He then reached third on a throwing error on the same play before Haselman drove him in with a single. In the bottom of the inning, Trammell grounded out before Clemens struck out two more Tigers. Nine Ks.

Fifth Inning: Clemens struck out the side in order in this inning, but what was notable was the movement on his stuff. His fastball had some filthy late movement and the bottom just fell out of his split-finger fastball as it approached the plate. He was in a really good rhythm in the fifth and had now struck out five hitters in a row. Twelve Ks.

Sixth Inning: A leadoff single broke up the strikeout streak at five, but Clemens followed it up by striking out the next three batters in a row. He continued to pitch in great rhythm and at a rapid clip that would be unheard of in 2020. Fifteen Ks.

Seventh Inning: The Tigers’ leadoff hitter grounded out and then Clemens struck out the next two hitters. By now the crowd was going crazy with every punchout, knowing that something special was brewing. Seventeen Ks.

Eighth Inning: The Red Sox picked up another run when Pemberton doubled and was driven in by a Haselman single. It was interesting that in this game the bottom of the order did all of the damage for Boston. In the bottom of the inning, Detroit actually threatened for the only time in the game. One hitter reached on a Mo Vaughn error and the next singled to give the Tigers two on with no outs.

Clemens settled down and struck out Brad Ausmus for the first out; in doing so, he had finally struck out everyone in the Tigers lineup at least once. For good measure, he struck out pinch hitter Phil Hiatt next to get everyone who played for Detroit in this game at least once (recall that the only Mariner he didn’t strike out in the 1986 game was pinch hitter Al Cowens).

The inning ended when Clemens had two strikes on Bobby Higgenson who then grounded out. It was funny to hear the Detroit crowd boo the umpires when they thought a call didn’t go Clemens’ way. Interesting, home plate umpire Tim McClelland called a very fair, tight strike zone. Clemens didn’t get any help in this game…he earned everything he got with pinpoint control. Nineteen Ks.

Ninth Inning: Clemens entered the ninth inning with three chances to blow past his previous record of twenty strikeouts, but it wasn’t to be. He got Trammell to pop up before giving up a single to Ruben Sierra. Tony Clark flied out for the second out and it all came down to the final batter, Travis Fryman. Clemens struck him out easily for number twenty as the crowd went nuts.

A quick fist pump, a look up at the sky, and then Roger was swarmed by teammates. The ninth inning was the only inning the entire game where he only struck out one batter, but it didn’t matter. No one had struck out twenty batters in a game before Clemens did it in 1986 and here he was ten years later doing it again. Twenty Ks.

Clemens final line for the game: 9 IP, 5 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 20 K (151 pitches, 101 for strikes)

Some other random notes from the game. The win was Clemens’ 192nd and final win in a Red Sox uniform, tying him with Cy Young for the franchise record. It improved his record to 10-12 and he’d finish the season 10-13 with a 3.63 ERA and a league-leading 257 strikeouts. This game was also Clemens’ 100th career complete game and his 38th career shutout (again tying him with Cy Young for the Red Sox franchise record).

The Red Sox had been on a tear since the All-Star break but they finished at 85-77, good for third in the AL East but out of Wild Card contention. The announcers kept talking about Clemens as though he was old and run down and at the end of the line. It was almost comical as they talked about him as if he would be retiring any day after the season…little did they (or any of us) know he’d go on to pitch for another eleven seasons after 1996.

More from Red Sox History

Pitch counts meant nothing in baseball until the early to mid-2000s and both of his twenty strikeout games show that quite clearly. Clemens threw 138 pitches in 1986 and 151 in 1996. Just his strike totals alone for those two games (97 in ’86, 191 in ’96) are more than most pitchers throw for total pitches in a start these days. He was a true workhorse, something that doesn’t exist anymore.

As with the 1986 game, the 1996 gem was a much brisker affair than most current games, clocking in at just under two hours and forty minutes. Just like in the earlier game, Clemens worked at a quick pace, getting the sign and delivering the pitch without any dithering on the mound. Ditto for the batters…even Nomar’s messing with his batting gloves hadn’t reached annoying proportions the way it would in another five or six years.

It was great to see Tiger Stadium, even if it was mostly empty. I’ve always been a ballpark buff, especially old ballparks, and ever since its final season in 1999 I’ve wished that the Tigers had done with Tiger Stadium what the Red Sox have done with Fenway Park.

Next. Chris Sale undergoes successful Tommy John surgery. dark

One last note on this game: future Red Sox manager Terry Francona was the Tigers’ third-base coach in 1996 and was at this game…he’s visible in the dugout on the broadcast and is even interviewed early in the game. Eight years later he’d pilot the Red Sox to their first World Series victory in eighty-six years.

As I’ve written earlier, I was a huge Clemens fan growing up and always wished he’d stayed with the team for his entire career. This trip back in time to watch him make history not once, but twice, was a lot of fun and a reminder of just how great a pitcher he was.