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

View last week's FROM THE DUGOUT...

Send Coach LeClair a baseball question...
Send Coach LeClair a personal note...

 


From The Dugout

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

OK, so the guy knows a little baseball. If you recall, Coach LeClair made a few bold predictions heading into the Divisional Series.

He predicted victories for the Marlins, Yankees, and Red Sox ó and he said the Braves didn't wan to face the Cubs and fireballers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior in a best-of-five series. Good call.

Coach is back this week with more in-depth analysis. Got a question about the Major League playoffs? Feel free to aim your best pitch right here -- coachleclair@bonesville.net. Or, if you just want to send coach LeClair a personal note, do so at komaha23@cox.net.


League Championship Series Analyses

By Keith LeClair

National League Ė Florida vs. Chicago

Game One:

I have to be honest, after the first inning, I thought the Cubs were going to blow the Marlins out in Game One.  I have grown to really appreciate these Marlins players and their skipper -- Jack McKeon for the way they keep battling.  The Cubs just came out blistering every pitch Beckett threw.  I was beginning to wonder if the Cubs had his pitches out of the glove it was so bad.  But often times, you will see a starting pitcher settle down after giving up a big first inning.  I dont know if itís because the offense relaxes or the pitcher just begins to make better pitches.

Last night, I think it was a little of both.  The first inning Beckett was using too much of the middle part of plate, and secondly, Beckett certainly was not used to that kind of cold weather after pitching most of the year in the summer heat.  Itís awfully tough at times in the first inning to get that sweat going and actually get a feel for the baseball. Thatís why in cold weather you see pitchers blowing on their hand so they can feel the ball better.  If you donít think thatís important, go outside some day when temperatures are below freezing and see how much longer it takes you to get loose.  Well, thatís my philosophy on the possibility of Beckettís bad first inning, and then settling down and pitching pretty well after that, until Grudzielanek's homerun that tied the game 6-6.

What a clutch homerun by Rodriguez to get the Marlins back even at four apiece. That just gave the Marlins such a boost offensively and allowed their speed to be a factor back on the bases.  When youíre down three or four runs, itís very difficult to take chances stealing bases and risk being thrown out.  A total of seven homeruns hit in an LCS game is hard to imagine.  To think the cubs hit four and still lost is a tough pill to swallow.  Thatís what makes baseball so fun to watch.  There are no set plays except the pitcher catcher and hitter, and you must react to whatever comes next.  Youíre up four-zip one minute and down six- four the next.  You scratch back in to tie the game with a homerun and then youíre down two going into the ninth until Sosa drives one on the street to tie it up again for the third time, only to lose on a pinch-hit homerun by Mike Lowell who has just come off the DL.

I canít figure this game out and never will, but I'll at least keep on trying. Keys for the Marlins to beat Prior and Wood:  They have to get guys on base and make them pitch out of stretch, so they can use their team speed to put pressure on.  Teams cannot just sit back and be swingers against these guys and win.  I also believe that the Marlins need to work the count early to get the pitch count up, so in the middle innings they will get better pitches to hit.  More runs are scored in those innings off starters, because fatigue starts to become a factor and the hitters get better pitches to hit -- and itís the third time through the order and hitters have seen more pitches and are able to make adjustments.

Game Two:

I have to be honest, I didnít watch but maybe ten pitches of this game because my attention was on the Red Sox-Yankees game.  I did see that Prior pitched out of a jam in the first, which gave Chicago some life early, and Randall Simon got a huge two-out hit with the bases loaded in the first.  From that point on, the Cubs just hammered the Marlinsí Brad Penny.  The ball was jumping out of Wrigley on an unseasonable warm night in Chicago.

Any time the Cubs jump out with a lead and can maintain it through the middle innings really takes away Floridaís ability to be more aggressive on the base paths.  This was a huge win for the cubs, and allowed Prior to shorten his pitch count, so he should be ready for his next start.  The Marlins better find a way to beat Prior and Wood at least one game or their hopes for a World Series is over. This makes Game Three a pivotal game in determining who wins this series.  I am predicting whoever wins Game Three will win the series.

American League Ė Boston vs. New York

Game One:

What a huge win for the Sox, with Wakefield beating Mussina.  I thought the Yankees looked really tight offensively while the Sox looked relaxed and swung the bats like they did during the regular season.  This is what I saw during the game that really decided the outcome.  Early on, I thought Wakefield's knuckle ball was up in the zone and not as sharp, but the Yankees swung through some good pitches to hit or either popped them up.  Against a knuckle baller, you cant miss his mistakes and score a lot of runs.

As the game went on and Wakefield got tired, his knuckler started dancing.  When you see a knuckle ball that comes to the plate and you see all white, guess what?  You're in trouble because that ball is going to fall in the zone quick.  And that's what Wakefield's ball began to do in the middle innings.  If you don't believe me, go catch one of coach Eason's good knucklers and see if you don't take one in the shin.  It's hard to hit when its thrown at the knees. As for Mussina, he simply couldn't find the plate early.  Even though the Sox didn't score, they made him work and got his pitch count up.  I believe in the second inning, Mussina had three-ball counts on three-consecutive Sox hitters, which is very uncharacteristic for a guy who gave up only 40 walks all year.  As I said earlier in one of my articles, most runs are scored in the middle innings held true to form tonight.

The second time around the order, Ortiz got a ball down low in the zone and hammered it out of park and then Mussina left a few balls out over the plate to Walker and Ramirez and they took advantage of it.  A typical Boston night offensively with the middle of the order guys coming through.  That's got to be how Boston wins this series.  Have a lead late and keep Rivera watching from behind the fence, and Boston has to hope Williamson comes up big while Kim is in the dog house.

Game Two:

It's a sad day as I sit in front of my computer because I really thought the Sox let one slip away.  The first two innings, the Sox had the Bronx Bombers and Andy Pettite on the ropes but just could not take advantage of their opportunities.  The Red Sox came out swinging the first two innings and had six hits and only one run.  Being a coach, I know what it's like to b second-guessed, but also realize it comes with the territory.  I can't help but wonder why with Andy Pettite on the mound and with his great move that you decide to send runners on a full count,  no-out situation knowing its an automatic double play if Mueller doesn't put the ball in play.  The runner can't get a good jump with Pettite's move, so even if Mueller hits a groundball, it's still going to be a double-play anyway.  Instead Mueller took a called strike three that was right down the pipe (belt high), so you can't blame Grady Little for that.  After that, Nomar and Ramirez get back-to-back singles that would have given Boston another run and first-and-third with one out.

The next inning, Boston has first and second with nobody out and Kapler at the plate, surely in my eyes a perfect time to bunt and keep the pressure on New York with your two and three hitters up.  They elected to swing away and Kapler hits into a tailor made double play.

I am not trying to bash Grady Little because I have walked in the shoes of a coach.  In fact, I think he is a terrific manager and with his pitching should be manager of the year.  But as a die hard Sox man, I just don't buy you don't do things a little different in the LCS compared to how you played during the regular season, especially with a backup player in for the injured Johnny Damon.  You're playing to go to the World Series that Boston has never won before and their opponent has 26 titles under their belt.

If you noticed Pettite was struggling leaving his cut fastball up and Boston was right on him, but after that double play ball, the whole momentum of the game changed.  I was watching the game with Nick Schnabel, one of my former all-time great players who is now coaching at ECU with coach Mazey, and after that two-ball, I told Nick that could be the ballgame.  I said that because when you don't take advantage of scoring opportunities early in the game against great pitchers, especially on the road, they eventually will hit a rhythm and get stronger as the game goes on.  That's exactly what happened to Pettite after that inning as he suddenly found command of his cutter.

Can't fault Lowe.  He battled and kept the Red Sox in it, but Pettite was just too good after the early innings.  Lowe made one mistake to Nick Johnson that cost him two runs and the lead.  Derek Lowe said it best:  "I threw him a cutter and it didnt cut."  You could tell after that pitch he was mad at himself for throwing it.  If you're going to pitch in Yankee stadium inside to lefties, you best get the ball in, or you're going to give up some gopher balls.

It's still early in the series and at least we have one on the road before heading back to sweet ole Fenway.  I am excited about seeing Clemens versus Pedro, a showdown you don't want to miss.

Q&A with Coach LeClair

Glenn Tucker: Forget about all the baseball and football out there. How about a real sport like the soccer world cup. I know you've been keeping close tabs on that. Who do you think has the edge? Just Kidding. I just wanted to have your opinion on Barry Bonds. It seems to me that teams are giving him to much respect. I know he is a great hitter, but he gets out 7 out of every 10 times like the rest of the good hitters in the bigs. Why not pitch to him?

Coach LeClair: What most managers are saying to Barry Bonds and the Giants is simple. We are not going to let Bonds beat us, and until somebody else steps up that will be the case. It worked for the Marlins, and until the giants sign another marquee power hitter to hit behind Bonds, that's going to be the strategy. It also puts a lot of mental stress on not only Bonds, but the rest of the team. You could see the frustration on Bonds' face when the Marlins kept intentionally walking him. What amazes me is how patient Bonds remains at the plate, which tells me he is a better team guy than we give him credit for. Tuck, I personally wouldn't pitch to him either until they get a legit guy to hit behind him. That's why most of his homers are with nobody on base. But if you were on the mound, I would go right at him.

I.P.: I grew up in a baseball family. Father worked for the old Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins. I played ball myself. Is it me or do you agree that the professional ball players today are lacking basic skills? I do see an increase in HR but I feel that is due to the use of steroids with some of the big name guys -- Bonds, McGuire and Sosa.

Coach LeClair: This is a great question that will be debated until the game of baseball ends. This is my opinion on this subject and by no means am I right. You're really talking about two different sculptured athletes today versus the modern day player. In today's game, you have trained a specific baseball player. What I mean by this is that athletes today are much better trained in the advancements of weight and conditioning and muscle enhancements to make guys bigger and stronger. In addition to that, baseball players today are on a routine, whether it be a pitcher or position player.

For example, a starting pitcher is on a strict throwing program and he pitches every fifth day. Or, you take a hitter who studies film and can break down his mechianics. I don't know if I am explaining this very well, but basically the game is much more scientific. Whether guys are on steroids or not, that's something I can't say because I don't know. I do know when I trained college baseball players, we could make them bigger and stronger by working hard in the weight room.

The question: Are guys less skilled today? I would say they have better equipment and are better trained physically, which has led to better skills. What we don't have today is the hard-nosed player that will walk up to bat facing Sandy Koufax with no helmet on. Today we have guys who go to the plate dressed in armor so they can stand on top of plate with no fear. If Bob Gibson pitched today, he would knock so many guys down you would lose count. More than that, players have lost respect for the game. You think Mickey Mantle would have hit a homerun and walked down the baseline pointing in his dugout? What Do you suppose Casey Stengle would have said to Jason Schmidt when he asked him if he could go on three days rest and he said no?

Heck, there was no such thing as a five-man rotation back in those days. Everybody threw on three-days rest. The game is still the same today that it was a hundred years ago, but the players have changed. And I don't blame them at all because this is what most fans want and this is how we are teaching our younger kids to play.

Denny: Coach, what are your thoughts about starting the college baseball season after final exams in the spring?

Coach LeClair: Personally, I don't like it for the game, but I love the game too much not to watch and enjoy it. There has been some strong talk about pushing the college season back to give northern schools a better opportunity to compete and to become more of a revenue-producing sport. The pros to this happening would be the exposure and TV opportunities it could create throughout the nation and not just In the south and west coast. It really is an unfair advantage that southern schools have over the northern schools. Plus, it would be the only collegiate sport taking place during that time. As it stands now, we compete with basketball until midway through March. And, half the season is played during the winter months where it's so cold that nobody wants to watch teams play.

The cons to it all is how does the NCAA make it work for the best Interest of the student athlete, and financially is this possible? It has been discussed that baseball players could go to school in the spring and use the summer sessions as their fall semester, which they would have an option of attending or taking a break. The other drawbacks would be the loss of summer leagues for colleges and what to do with the major league draft. I personally am in favor of this move and think it would take college baseball to another level. But I don't see it happening until the southern and west coast schools get behind it as well. It's somewhat like the BCS in football, where you have a select few schools running collegiate athletics.

Denny: Did you agree with Bobby Cox's decision to use a three-man rotation?

Coach LeClair: It's hard to ever disagree with Bobby Cox, but as I stated before the playoffs, it is awfully tough to suddenly change a pitcher's routine. The two teams that did go with a three-man rotation both lost (Oakland and Atlanta). Why Bobby Cox chose not to go with Horacio Ramirez, I truly can't answer that, except he is a young guy and the Braves just didn't feel like he gave them the best option to win. This decision did not cost the Braves this series against the cubs, rather a lack of offense against perhaps two of the best young pitchers in the game.

I will agree that the Braves certainly lacked a dominant number one pitcher to offset the Cubs in a best of five series. Nothing against Russ Ortiz and the year he had, but his stuff is not that of a Kerry wood or Mark Prior. If you noticed the other night Kerry Wood was throwing 97 in the sixth inning with an 87 MPH breaking ball. When you have a guy throwing like he was, you're capable of winning every low scoring game, and your team mentally knows all they have to do is manufacture a couple of runs to win.

Denny: Why isn't Gary Sheffield getting any attention for MVP honors?

Coach LeClair: I just can't see putting Sheffield in the running against Albert Pujols and BarryB bonds for the MVP this year. Sheffield ended up hitting .330 with 39 HRs 138 RBIs. Although this is a great year by most standards, it is in my mind still not good enough to overtake Pujols and Bonds for the MVP. If he was playing in the AL, Sheffield probably wins. Why is Javy Lopez not getting any support for mvp? All he did was hit 42 HRs, 109 RBIs and batted .328, while catching o128 games. Just throwing his name out there.

Denny: What do you think the perfect formula is for a championship club?

Coach LeClair: The problem organizations run into putting together the perfect, well-balanced club is free agency and how you're going to spend your money. I think the perfect formula for success would be to build a great pitching staff through the minors, much like the Cubs and Marlins, and surround them with some excellent defensive of players up the middle (catcher, shortstop, second and centerfield).

On offense, sign a shortstop, second baseman and centerfielder that not only can play defense, but give you some speed and ability to put some pressure on the opposing team. I would then go ahead and sign four guys that can swing it at first, third, left and right field. Preferably, at least three of those guys would be left-handed hitters. I would then go sign a catcher that can control a pitching staff and play defense, but during this age in the game, you're going to get some offense as well. The Cubs and Marlins are both real close to having a team that represents this formula with a few quality additions on each team. Unfortunately, just when have, it your superstars get signed by somebody else and you're back to square one. That's why the draft and minor league system is so important to maintain success.

Submit baseball questions to:
coachleclair@bonesville.net
Send personal messages to:
komaha23@cox.net

02.23.07 10:27 AM

 

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