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East Carolina Hall of Famer and
former baseball coach Keith LeClair.
 (Photo: ECU Media Relations)

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Editor's note: This feature
coordinated by Denny O'Brien.


From The Dugout

By Keith LeClair

Keys to late-season success

Over the last few weeks, I have received several e-mails about what a team must do to play well down the stretch. I have my own ideas, which certainly doesn't mean they are right, but most baseball analysts would agree they are pretty critical in winning the big games:

1. The game is controlled on the mound and the pitchers have to throw their fastball for strikes on both sides of the plate. You have to control the strike zone and make the opposing team put the ball in play. If you give up eight or nine hits a game, that's OK, but you can't mix in four or five walks and expect to win. That means work quick in a good rhythm and keep your defense in the flow of the game. That means your pitchers are throwing a lot of first pitch strikes and staying out of hitter's counts, like (1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-1, 3-2). What you would like to see is a lot of ten to twelve-pitch innings.

2. You have to play sound fundamental defense and minimize those four and five-out innings. Those innings, accommodated with base on balls, absolutely are a recipe for disaster. That doesn't mean you're not going to make errors, especially physical ones, but you can't kick the ball around down the stretch and expect to win. This goes without saying that in big games you can not commit mental errors, like throwing to the wrong base and not keeping the double play in order, or not collecting outs in bunt defensive situations.

3. Teams down the stretch have to "situational" hit, whether it be getting a bunt down late in the game or hitting a ground ball, fly ball to the backside (which means right of second base) with a man on second and nobody out. The other key ingredient to situational hitting is scoring runners on third base with one out or less, via a ground ball or sac fly. This is critical in winning close games versus good pitching down the stretch.

As a team, these are the little things that will help your team win a four-three ballgame, along with good smart base running decisions. For example, ball in the dirt and moving up to second to stay out of a double play or taking third with one out to put yourself in a better scoring position. These, I categorize as doing the little things that only the coaches and players see as making a difference in winning and losing.

I feel if a team can do these three things well down the stretch in big games, they will always put themselves in a position to win. This may seem like pretty standard stuff, but you will be amazed at how many little things cost teams wins down the stretch.

Let me throw one more key in that doesn't show up in the box scores, but can control the outcome just the same:

4. You have to catch a break from either a call made by the umpire or a bad hop single. That may sound a little odd coming from a coach, but in the Regionals at LSU in 1999, we were one strike call from getting out of the sixth inning and keeping a six-run lead. I am not saying that call cost us the game or the Regional, but it is those breaks that sometimes can put you over the edge.

The same could have been said in the 2001 Super Regional against Tennessee. We were one borderline strike call from winning that first game and in all probability going to Omaha. By no means am I slamming umpires. My point is, you need that break that can propel you over the top, like a call or bad hop single, something that may be out of the ordinary in a close ballgame.

I hope that answers some of our readers' questions and gives you a little inside insight of what a coach preaches and turns his hair grey. My hat's off to the Pirates' record-setting 19-game win streak. Unless you coach, sometimes it's hard to understand just how difficult that feat is to accomplish. Go get 'em Pirates!

If you have a question or comment about the Pirates in particular or baseball in general, fire your best pitch at Ol' Condo: Sound off to Coach LeClair...

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02.23.07 10:27 AM


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