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
Divisional Series Breakdowns
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.
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
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.
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
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
My prediction -- The Braves will beat Houston and struggle with the Cubs. You
can bet they will be scoreboard watching this weekend.
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
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
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
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.
02.23.07 10:27 AM