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

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From The Dugout

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

East Carolina Hall of Fame coach Keith LeClair is back for his weekly no-holds-barred analysis of America's favorite past time. While most Pirates fans have kept their eyes glued to the gridiron radar, Coach LeClair has been closely monitoring the pennant races and has his horses picked for the postseason.

Though a die-hard Boston fan ó hey, what do you expect from a New Englander? ó Coach LeClair says his opinions won't be jaded by his red socks and navy-blue shaded glasses. So, here are his breakdown of the Divisional Series and his answers to a few questions, too.

Think you're ready to step on the mound and challenge Coach LeClair? By all means do. Fire your best pitch right here: Or, if you just want to drop a line to the coach and say hello, use this address:

Divisional Series Breakdowns

By Keith LeClair

Minnesota vs. New York

In a best three-out-of-five series, the best team doesnít always win. The Yankees are going to be heavy favorites to win this series,but need to win the first two games at home to avoid an upset. The Metrodome is a very difficult place to play and win, especially in the playoffs when the place is packed and rocking.

The Twins have been hot down the stretch overcoming close to seven games at the all-star break. What helps Minnesota out in a five-game series is starting pitching, their true weakness. I would say they will go with Johan Santana, Brad Radke and Kenny Rogers. The Yankees will most likely counter with Mike Mussina, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens. The game four starter I would speculate for the Twins could be Kyle Lohse, but donít count out Eric Milton, who just came back from the DL. If he throws well in his next start, he very well may be the guy. The Yanks most likely will start David Wells, unless bossman George wakes up on the wrong side of bed. The Yankees have already announced Jose Contreras will move to the pen, which will give them an added boost.

I will give the starting pitching and bullpen edge the Yankees. Although, the Twins have a good one two combo in LaTroy Hawkins and Eddie Guardado, but I am a Rivera fan for the Yanks and give them the edge solely based on him.

Offensively the Yankees have the advantage here as well. They hit for much more power and can score in bunchesÖ quick. Minnesota on the other hand is more of a gap-to-gap offense that has to situational hit and take advantage of scoring opportunities. Torii Hunter leads the twins with 26 homeruns. Both teams donít run a whole lot except Soriano for the Yanks. Advantage Yanks.

Defensively, both clubs are very solid. The Twins donít have the power pitchers to get out of jams so itís extremely important they play great defense in order to have a chance to win. Torii Hunter can turn a game around with his defense in centerfield alone. Advantage Twins because of Hunter and the dome.

Pick: Yankees in five. They have something to prove and I don't think the twins starting pitching can stop them. Beware, the Yankees better win the first two or they could be in trouble.

Oakland vs. Boston

This should be a great series that nobody will want to miss, especially Boston fans. You have the best hitting team in baseball with Boston and perhaps the best starting pitching in baseball with Oakland. Although, without Mark Mulder, that statement could be argued, but regardless the A's still have a great one-two combo in Barry Zito and Tim Hudson.

I know Tim Hudson all to well. My last year at Western before coming to ECU, Tim Hudson stuck it up our tails in the Regionals. He threw a split-finger that was nearly impossible to hit. What people don't know about Hudson is the fact he was a great hitter in college. So we know Oakland has two great starters, but after that, your guess is as good as mine. I believe they will go with Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Ted Lilly and either rookie Rich Harden, who has great stuff, or John Halama, who they brought out of the pen after Mulder got hurt. I would note that Ted Lilly is a lefty who throws 90-92 with a good breaking ball. If Boston has a weakness in their offense, its the fact they are acceptable to good left-handed pitching. Notice I said good LHP and not just LHP in general.

Boston will counter with games best pitcher in Pedro Martinez and probably Derek Lowe, Tim Wakefield, John Burkett or newly acquired Jeff Suppan. Both clubs will struggle finding that fourth starter and may elect to go with a three-man rotation, pitching on three days' rest. thats going to be a managers nightmare trying to decide on that decision. Pitching advantage -- Oakland -- not based so much on their starting pitching, but rather their bullpen. Boston's bullpen scares me with Kim as a closer and no true setup guy. Both Williamson and Sauerback, who were acquired to shore up the pen, have been disappointments thus far. Oakland on the other hand has a deep pen with an excellent closer in Foulke. Any close games I definitely would give the advantage to Oakland.

Offensively, Boston in my opinion is the best in baseball. They have power throughout the line up and they all hit for average. If Boston is going to win this series, they can't go in a team slump now. They more than likely will have to score six or more runs a game, except when Pedro is pitching. Oakland on the other hand needs a big series out of Tejada and Chavez. They don't have the offensive depth and power the Red Sox counter with their lineup. Oakland has to take advantage of all their scoring opportunities at third with less than two outs. I believe Oakland is a good offensive club, but will have to be extra good because their ball park is small in the alleys and is tailored to Boston's lineup. Advantage -- Boston.

Defensively is a toss up. Both clubs can't afford to make mistakes and give up unearned runs, especially Oakland. One mistake can cost you three runs in a hurry in that lineup.

My pick -- Boston in four. Beware, if Oakland's lefties -- Zito and Lilly -- control Boston's left-handed hitters, they very well could get beat, but I don't see it happening. Get ready for a Yankee-Sox classic nobody will forget.

Florida vs. San Francisco

This is a very intriguing match up and one we need to keep an eye on. Itís the thirty five and older gang -- the Giants -- against the twenty-five and younger boys -- the Marlins. Letís see how they match up and who will come out on top.

Pitching: Starting with the Giants, Jason Schmidt could very well be the most dominating starter in the National League this year. He has over powering stuff that includes a fastball in the mid-90s and a nasty curveball. After Schmidt, you have Sidney Ponson, who came over from Baltimore, and after struggling early has pitched better as of late. Felipe Alou will probably then send Kirk Rueter to the hill in game three. He's a crafty lefty who will throw strikes and keep you in the game. After that I have no idea who will start. It could be Jerome Williams or John Foppert. The bullpen is definitely not as dominating without Rob Nenn. Tim Worrell has done a great job filling in, but it still remains whether or not he can do it in the playoffs closing tight games. The Giants do have some depth in the pen with Joe Nathan, who has 11 wins, and Felix Rodriguez.

The Marlins also have a deep staff that starts with rookie phenom Dontrelle Willis. For the Marlins to win, Dontrelle will have to pitch well and try to keep Bonds in check. The marlins will most likely go with and not exactly in this order: Brad Penny, Josh Beckett and Mark Redman or Carl Pavano. Whoever doesn't start will be moved to bullpen in a middle relief role where the Marlins have a little bit of a weakness. The bullpen is set late in the game with Looper and Urbina. Jack McKeon has confidence in both of those guys to close out games. Advantage: Giants, only because Jason Schmidt is so dominating.

Offensively: The giants have Barry Bonds and that just about says it all. Without him, the giants would be in a dog fight with the Dodgers. The question will be whether the Marlins pitch to Bonds and will the Giants have anyone behind him to drive him in. It's important that guys get on base in front of him to limit the Marlins' options of pitching around Bonds. Don't be shocked to see Bonds walk two or three times a game. Outside of Bonds, the Giants are a below-average offensive team. The next best hitter outside of Bonds is Marquis Grissom who has 20hrs and is hitting .299. The giants will run if Eric Young gets on base, but outside of him they are a station-to-station offensive club.

The Marlins are much more versatile and aggressive offensively. Juan Pierre, Juan Encarnacion, Derek Lee and Louis Castillo all have over 20 SB and Pierre leads league with 62. The Marlins do not hit a lot of homeruns and really could use the return of Mike Lowell off the DL to give them a lift. They also got a huge pickup when they got Jeff Conine from the Orioles. I love this guy and think he is a clutch hitter when the pressure is on. Key for the Giants will be to keep Pierre off base and slow down the running game.
Advantage: Marlins.

Defensively, the marlins are young and quick. Rodriguez behind the plate is probably the best in the league and has done a good job handling the young staff. Advantage: Marlins.

Pick: I am going with the upset and taking the Marlins over the Giants in five. I just think the Marlins are playing great baseball down the stretch with the pressure to win. The Giants on the other hand haven't had any real pressure on them during the season. I truly believe that makes a difference when you finally get tested.

Braves versus Astros/Cubs

I can't speculate on this series yet because whoever wins between the Cubs/Astros will make a huge difference. I can tell you that nobody in the National or American League wants to face the cubs combo of Prior and Wood. I can tell you the Braves really want the Astros to win. The cubs present a very difficult matchup for Atlanta and its dominant right-handed hitting line up.

The Braves are definitely the scariest offensive team in the playoffs behind Boston. They have power in every spot of the lineup except the nine hole where the pitcher hits. Think about facing Furcal, Giles, Sheffield, Jones, Jones, Lopez, Castilla and Fick. It's a very tough challenge for any opposing pitcher. This is a very different Braves team than in years past when everyone talked about their pitching.

My biggest question with the Braves is the pitching staff, despite leading the major leagues in wins. The rotation of Ortiz, Maddux, Hampton, Ramirez or Reynolds is not that dominating, but it is certainly good enough to win. The key to the Braves' playoff chances will revolve around Mike Hampton's command of the strike zone. The Braves have to get quality starts and stay out of the bullpen until Smoltz can take over. He is absolutely dominating and is used to pressure games.

My prediction -- The Braves will beat Houston and struggle with the Cubs. You can bet they will be scoreboard watching this weekend.

Q&A with Coach LeClair

Jeff Hamilton, Reidsville, NC: Should the Marlins keep Trader Jack as manager and should he be the manager of the year in the NL?

Coach LeClair: I love Jack McKeon and think he has done a tremendous job getting the most out of his young club. They play hard every day and the players seem to trust and believe in him. Often times, this is what happens when a veteran skipper with Jack McKeonís experience takes over in the middle of a season. Chances are, this never would have taken place with a veteran club where the egos are big and hard to manage.

One thing that is often over looked is that these young players are playing for future contracts and put forth a great effort daily. Thatís why my vote for manager of the year would be Bobby Cox, even though Jack McKeon has done a tremendous job. If you look year in and year out, Bobby Cox doesnít seem to get the recognition he deserves. He has the ability to get marquee players to come together and play as a team each and every year. This past year he lost Glavine, Millwood and Mike Remlinger and still the Braves havenít missed a beat. So I say this is the year Bobby Cox gets his credit that is due.

Jeff Hamilton, Reidsville, NC: How do you see the ACC with Miami joining,will the ACC be the best baseball league in america.

Coach LeClair: Now youíre bringing me back into my domain of college baseball. The ACC has obviously strengthened their conference with the addition of Miami and Virginia Tech. To say itís the best conference in America? Only time will answer that. It already has been among the top without Miami, so certainly it wonít go backwards.

What people donít realize about the ACC that allows them to be so competitive is the ability to play great non-conference schedules because of the proximity of so many quality Division I programs. This is where the ACC gets such a high RPI each year. Also, the other factor is the travel is relatively short and done by bus. Believe me when I say thatís a huge advantage. No coach or team likes the hassle of taking commercial flights, leaving Thursday and returning early Monday morning. It takes a lot out of a team to do that all year long. Itís not like football where you have charter flights and can leave when the games over.

Denny: During the 80s, speed demons were a huge part of the game. Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman are a couple of names that come to mind. Why have managers stopped stealing bases as much these days?

Coach LeClair: Many factors have gone into the decline of stealing bases in the new era of baseball. I think itís safe to call it the new era. The first of a few reasons is due to most pitchers slide-stepping to the plate from the stretch. Pitchers today are taught from college on up through the minors to be quicker to the plate out of stretch with man on first. That makes it very difficult to steal bases unless you get a tremendous jump, or there is a poor throw from catcher. Most pitchers today are in the 1.2--1.3 range. What that means is, as soon as the pitcher starts delivery to the plate and as soon as the catcher receives the ball. Thatís where we get the time to determine if we have a chance to steal a base. The times will change whether its a fastball, breaking ball or change up. Bbut over the years, pitchers are being taught mechanics to deliver the ball quicker to the plate.

Some other reasons coming into play are the construction of new ballparks and the dimensions being geared for the power guys. Parks are much smaller today and the balls are probably a little more juiced up, as well as some of the players. Fans today love action and towering homeruns, so Major League baseball is tailoring the game to what best interests the fans. I personally donítí like it and enjoy the low scoring and execution of the small game myself.

Today managers canít take a chance on running into an out when you have a guy capable of scoring runs with one swing of the bat. But those are some of a few reasons why the art of stealing bases is no longer in baseball like it was in the 80s. That and players donít work at it like they should.

Denny: Just how did the Anaheim Angels go from Champs to Chumps?

Coach LeClair: Your guess is as good as mine. I would say for starters their starting pitching wasnít nearly what it was last year. Their ERA is up and they are giving up a lot of hits per innings pitched. Offensively, the numbers are way down except for Garret Anderson. Both the power numbers and batting averages are just not where they were a year a year ago.

More than anything else, the Angels were a Cinderella team last year and that makes it even tougher to come back the following year and repeat. Most fans just donít realize how mental and emotional baseball is over a course of 162 games. If you get in a rut and cant climb out quickly, your team mentally is done. The further you fall back in the standings, the more players begin to play for themselves and not the team.

If you watched the Angels play last year, you noticed how much energy and unselfishness they played with. It was like watching one of the teams play from the Little League World Series, but when you start off bad and keep falling in the standings, itís very hard to play with that same kind of emotion. Now again this year, you see the Marlins playing with that same kind of emotion and believing they can win.

Denny: If the Braves get past the Division Series, do you think Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone will go with a three-man rotation with Maddux, Ortiz, and Hampton, or will they go with a four-man? What would you do?

Coach LeClair: The hardest decision as a manager sometimes is setting up your rotation. A couple of things go into your decision-making process. One, who your are playing and how did Shane Reynolds and Horacio Ramirez pitch against them in the regular season. You also have to take into consideration if you are up in the series or down. I personally donít like the idea of using a three-man rotation because pitchers are just not prepared to do it. All year long they have a routine on pitching with four days rest and your body gets accustomed to that schedule.

What Leo Mazzone and Bobby Cox have in their favor for using a three-man rotation is the fact that Maddux and Hampton are not overpowering and lean on their ability to pitch. This generally favors those types of guys versus a power pitcher. What would I do? Take a pack of Tums and let coach (Tommy) Eason make the decision.

Denny: Bullpens always tend to have a huge impact in the playoffs. Which pen do you like best and why?

Coach LeClair: First, people have to understand why a bullpen is so important to a team. I am going to use the Yankees for my example because they, in my eyes, have the best bullpen in baseball with rivera and jeff nelson, who they acquired from Seattle.

What the bullpen does is shorten the game from a nine to seven-inning game. You know as a pitcher and position player if you can take a lead into eighth have got a great chance of winning. Not only does your team know it, but the guys sitting in the other dugout as well.

So, as a manager, you can start manufacturing runs in middle innings to get a lead going into seventh-inning stretch. Having a bullpen like the Yankees gives your starting pitchers confidence that their job is not to give you nine innings, but seven quality innings and then turn it over to pen. Teams that donít have a true setup guy and closer put tremendous pressure on the starters to pace themselves instead of just going after it as long as they can. The setup guy can be just as important as the closer because usually this is the guy who is going to be called on first to maintain that lead or keep it tied and give your team a chance to score and get the ball to a guy like Rivera. This is where the lefty-righty match-ups come in late in the game. Thatís why so many teams desperately tried to find a lefty reliever before the trade deadline.

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02.23.07 10:27 AM


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