Paul Clemens was in the visitors’ dugout at AutoZone Park in Memphis in early April when he was approached by Tony DeFrancesco, his manager with the Triple-A Oklahoma City Redhawks.
Clemens, a former standout at Robinson Secondary School, had been charting pitches when DeFrancesco told the right-hander that he was done for the day and to take a shower.
The early shower was no punishment. Clemens learned he was being promoted to the Major Leagues with the Houston Astros, whose top minor league team is in Oklahoma City.
“It was a dream come true,” said Clemens, who is no relation to former Houston star Roger Clemens. “From high school to college I knew I had a shot. It drove me and made me hungry. I listened to my elders.”
Clemens left Memphis that evening to catch a flight to Seattle, where the Astros were playing. The 6-foot-4 hurler pitched in his first league game on April 9 against the Mariners, allowing five earned runs in four innings in long relief for his first Major League win.
“It could not have happened at a better place,” Clemens said. “I used to be a Seattle fan because of Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey, Jr. It was a dream come true to make my debut in Seattle.”
He pitched three innings on April 26 at Boston and allowed just one earned run. In his first eight outings for Houston this year — all coming out of the bullpen — he is 1-1 with an ERA of 4.79, racking up 13 strikeouts while allowing 18 hits and four walks.
Robinson baseball fans remember Clemens for breaking several strikeout records set by Javier Lopez, a former University of Virginia star who has pitched for several years in the big leagues and is now with the Giants.
Drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 2008 out of Louisburg Junior College in North Carolina, Clemens worked his way up the Braves’ farm system before being traded to Houston in 2011 for a deal that sent big league outfielder Michael Bourn to Atlanta.
He notched an ERA of 2.35 in five starts with Double-A Corpus Christi in the Houston system after the trade.
But Clemens hit a bump in the road last year with a subpar season, accumulating an ERA of 6.73 and a record of 8-8 with Oklahoma City. He was 3-2, 3.46 in seven starts in 2012 with Corpus Christi.
“There are two types of people: people who are humble and people who are about to be humbled,” he said in a telephone interview from Boston in late April as the Astros were in town to face the Red Sox. “Last year I got humbled.”
Prior to the 2012 season he was listed as the No. 5 prospect in the Houston farm system, according to industry leader Baseball America. That ranking fell to No. 27 before the start of this season.
“The issues with his command, frame and preparation point towards Clemens being a reliever long-term,” read Baseball America’s analysis.
So what changed since the end of the 2012 season?
“I learned more in that year of struggling than in the previous three years of success in the minor leagues,” said Clemens, who thrives on a fastball in the mid-90s and a reliable curve ball. “I was really confident. I got humbled last year.”
Clemens is already looking ahead to later in the season when the Astros play a series in Baltimore July 30 to August 1. His father’s work commute used to take him from Fairfax to Baltimore, where he would get tickets to see the Orioles at Camden Yards.
Clemens remembers following Baltimore pitchers Daniel Cabrera and Erik Bedard. Now the 25-year-old counts Bedard as a teammate in Houston.
“Having Erik Bedard in the clubhouse is weird to me,” he said.