Roger Clemens made his major-league debut in May 1984, but didn’t really make his mark until after shoulder surgery cut short his 1985 season. The 23-year-old Texan came into 1986 determined to show he was as good as ever — or better — despite the surgery. He won his first three starts of the season, striking out 19 in 24⅓ innings. Clemens’s ability to throw gas opened his teammates’ eyes. Before he faced the Seattle Mariners on April 29, his fourth start, first baseman Bill Buckner told pitcher Al Nipper he thought Clemens would strike out 18 men. “The way he’s been throwing and the way [the Mariners] have been striking out, 18 seemed like the number,” Buckner later told the Boston Globe. Buckner’s prediction came partly because of Clemens’s prowess, and partly because the M’s of ’86 had proved to be particularly bad at making contact. In the season’s first 19 games, they had racked up 166 K’s, putting them on pace for some 1,400 total, 200 more than the previous worst (the 1968 Mets with 1,203). The past two games alone they had whiffed 20 times. The situation seemed primed for an assault on the record book.
On a chilly April night, Clemens took the hill at Fenway Park on six days’ rest, thanks to a rainout and an offday. In the first inning, he faced Spike Owen, Phil Bradley, and Ken Phelps. He retired them on 21 pitches, striking out the side, despite going to a full count on all three men. All three went down swinging. The first man to hit a ball fair was Gorman Thomas, who led off the second, and lined to left. Then Jim Presley struck out, and Clemens caught Ivan Calderon looking. In the third, the M’s could almost believe they were figuring Clemens out, as only Dave Henderson struck out, and leading off the fourth inning, Owen, facing Clemens for the second time on the day, singled, breaking up the possibility of a perfect game or a no-hitter.
But not the masterpiece. Clemens came back to strike out Bradley, Phelps, and Thomas. Thomas almost popped out, but first baseman Don Baylor dropped the ball, allowing Clemens to finish the batter off. Patrons at Fenway Park were already counting K’s, and when Baylor fumbled the foul, there was an approving murmur because attentive fans realized this offered Clemens another chance for a strikeout. When he caught Thomas looking at a 3-and-2 pitch, The Rocket began a string of eight strikeouts in a row, knocking down some records along the way. At seven, Clemens surpassed Buck O’Brien and Ray Culp, two Red Sox pitchers who shared the team record for consecutive K’s at six. When he got veteran catcher Steve Yeager on a 2-and-2 curveball, he tied Nolan Ryan and Ron Davis as the only American Leaguers to fan eight in a row. Fans began to put up red K signs on the back wall of the bleachers. “Where’d they come from?” Nipper asked in the next day’s Globe. “Did those guys run out and get the cardboard and paint? Suddenly they were there.”
Spike Owen, though, broke the string, ending the sixth with a fly to center – and some fans had been yelling, “Drop it!” wanting Roger to retire the side on a strikeout. Red Sox manager John McNamara checked with his ace to see how he was feeling. “I’ve been doing that every game this year, making sure his arm feels good,” McNamara told the Globe. Clemens himself was fine, and he knew he was pitching as well as he ever had.
Boston’s offense, meanwhile, had yet to come to life, and the game stood at 0-0. Clemens went out to pitch the seventh and struck out Bradley and Phelps again. Clemens then had Gorman Thomas down 1-and-2, and the crowd screaming for another K. But Thomas was looking for something in the strike zone, and he connected for a home run into the first row in the deep center-field bleachers. The Mariners had broken the scoreless tie and taken the lead. Clemens retired Presley on a grounder to first, but he was in a 1-0 hole, despite his mastery. McNamara checked with him again. This time Clemens admitted his legs were cramping a bit, but his arm was fine. McNamara had no intention of pulling his pitcher, who already had 16 strikeouts to his credit.
The Red Sox finally got to Mariners starter Mike Moore in the bottom of the seventh. With two outs, Steve Lyons singled and Glenn Hoffman walked. Dwight Evans promptly cashed them both in with a three-run shot. Now Clemens had a 3-1 lead, and he went out for the eighth still throwing heat, but unaware of the record numbers he was approaching. Two more men struck out in the eighth, bringing Clemens’s total to 18. Clemens didn’t know exactly how many men he had set down, only that it had been quite a few.
As he took the mound for the ninth inning, Nipper decided to tell him about the possibility that another record might fall. “Nipper told him he needed one to tie and two to set the record,” reported Leigh Montville in the Globe. In Nipper’s words, “Wouldn’t it be a shame if a guy had a chance for something like that and didn’t try for it? I wanted him to know. He’s not the type of guy who would be affected by knowing.”
Clemens was unfazed by the knowledge. He faced Spike Owen once more to lead off the inning. Could Owen make contact again? No, he went down swinging, and the record of 19 men in a nine-inning game was tied. Now Bradley, who already had three strikeouts, came up, and went down looking. It was strikeout number 20. Fenway’s message board flashed the news that the single-game strikeout record had been broken. Wade Boggs came over from third base to shake Clemens’s hand for breaking the record. But the game was not quite over. Ken Phelps’ groundout was almost an afterthought, as in striking out 20 men Clemens had accomplished something that had never been done in 111 years of major-league baseball.
“When he has that kind of stuff, it’s really not difficult to call the game,” his catcher, Rich Gedman, told reporters after the game. “He just threw the ball to spots where they couldn’t hit it.” It took him 138 pitches (97 strikes) to finish the feat. Seattle put only 10 balls in play, only two of them pulled, as Clemens hit 97 on the radar gun repeatedly and did not go to a three-ball count on even one batter after the fourth inning.
“Watching the Mariners try to hit Clemens was like watching a stack of waste paper diving into a shredder,” wrote Dan Shaughnessy in the Globe. Clemens’s domination was, in some ways, superior to a no-hitter, or even a perfect game, because the record was singularly his. “If setting the major-league record for strikeouts in a game is any measure of a career,” wrote the Associated Press, “[then] Roger Clemens is heading for the Hall of Fame.” In fact, the Hall received Clemens’s spikes, cap, and other mementos of the game.
Clemens’s domination would continue all year, and he would finish the season at 24-4 and win both the Cy Young Award and the American League MVP Award, while helping Boston reach the World Series for the first time since 1975.
Rich Gedman, by virtue of catching all 20 strikeouts in the game, broke an American League record and tied a major-league record with 20 putouts by a catcher in a nine-inning game. Jerry Grote had previously been credited with 20 on April 22, 1970, while catching for the Mets, on the day when Tom Seaver struck out 19 Padres, including the final 10 in a row. Grote had also caught a foul pop for an out. The record would later be equaled by Dan Wilson on August 8, 1997, in the AL, and Sandy Martinez May 6, 1998, in the NL. Gedman would still hold the record for most putouts by a catcher on two consecutive days, though, with 36 over April 29 and 30, 1986.
A little more than 10 years later, Clemens later had another 20-K game, against the Tigers in Detroit on September 18, 1996. In 1998 Kerry Wood of the Chicago Cubs struck out 20 Astros on May 6.
The record for the most strikeouts in a big-league game belongs to Tom Cheney of the Washington Senators. He struck out 21 opponents, though it took him 16 innings to do so in the September 12, 1962, game against the Orioles. On May 8, 2001, Arizona’s Randy Johnson struck out 20 Reds in nine innings; he was relieved after nine.
This article appeared in “The 1986 Boston Red Sox: There Was More Than Game Six” (SABR, 2016), edited by Leslie Heaphy and Bill Nowlin. Read more game stories from the book at the SABR Games Project by clicking here. An earlier version of this article was published in “The 50 Greatest Red Sox Games” (Riverdale Avenue Books, 2013), by Cecilia Tan and Bill Nowlin, and appears here by permission.