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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]

Thanks to an improbable comeback by their ancient nemeses, his beloved Red Sox suffered one more indignation at the hands of the Yankees.

But that hasn't clouded Coach Keith LeClair's insights into the World Series or his expert answers to questions.

Coach is back this week with more in-depth analysis. Got a question about the World Series? Feel free to aim your best pitch right here —

Or, if you just want to send Coach LeClair a personal note, do so at

World Series Breakdown

By Keith LeClair

Well, it's finally here after two of the greatest LCS series in the history of the game. We almost had the classic match-up a lot of fans wanted with the Cubs versus the Red Sox, but a billy goat got in the way of one and a guy named Babe in the way of other. It was a lot of late nights that kept us all on the edge of our seats.

I am still in mourning over last night's Red Sox-Yankees game, but lets try to put that behind us and get to this World Series preview. As much as I wanted the Cubs-Sox series, this still matches up to be a great series between the up-and-coming young guns of Florida and a Yankees club that may be torn apart at season's end. The Marlins are, without question, the hottest team in the league and its safe to say they're playing the best all-around baseball. They are matched up against a veteran team that, despite not hitting, has still managed to find a way to win with solid starting pitching and the most dominant closer in playoff history. Let's break down each club and then I will give my prediction for the series.

Pitching: The Marlins, in my opinion, have the most dominant young pitcher in the major leagues right now in Josh Beckett. His stuff is absolutely filthy to righties or lefties — it doesn't matter who he faces. He throws consistently in mid to upper 90s with movement, has a power breaking ball that is tight and breaks late in zone. And if that's not enough, he has a great change that has that good sink at the end. What makes it even more effective is the arm speed. Most guys don't throw their fastball as hard as this guy's change. I would guess Beckett will throw Game Three on Tuesday night in Florida. My major concern right now with Beckett is how much gas will be left in tank after throwing on two days rest.

After Josh Beckett, this is where the Marlins and skipper Jack McKeon run into problems. They have Brad Penny who also has electrifying stuff but has been inconsistent with his command and hit hard. And then their is Mark Redman who is a soft throwing lefty that really is not a good match-up against the Yanks' lineup. After that, you have Carl Pavano, who has probably been the Marlins' second best pitcher behind Beckett. He throws in the low 90s with a good breaking ball and has been pitching very well in the playoffs, both in relief and as a starter. I would project him as the Game One starter on Saturday. As for Dontrelle Willis, I am not sure how Jack will use him in this World Series. I think Willis is tired from a long season and has lost control of his fastball in the playoffs. His last outing, it appeared his arm slot was down a tad and was slinging the ball to the plate. The Marlins Willis to step up and pitch big.

The Yankees' starting pitching is so much easier to talk about and is definitely one of their strengths. You know they will run Pettite, Mussina, Clemens and Wells out against you in this series. Pettite poses problems for the Marlins' left-handed Pierre and Castillo, because of his pickoff move. Pettite will force the Marlins to have to play a little more station to station from first to second base. I expect Pierre and Castillo to try and bunt the first base line and put some pressure on the Yankees' defense. I anticipate that if the Marlins are to beat Pettite, Rodriguez, Cabrea, Conine, and Lowell will have to step up and deliver some big hits with men on base to win.

The other problem the Yankees' staff poses to the Marlins is they don't walk many guys. Both wells and Mussina usually never beat themselves because of base on balls, very different from what they faced against the Cubbies. Even Clemens, the power pitcher he is, stays around the zone. I like the Yankees' four starters because they are experienced and all have pitched in past World Series, so they know how to prepare and mentally handle the pressure.

Starting pitching edge: Yankees.

Bullpen: The Marlins have done a superb job out of the pen in advancing to beat both the Giants and Cubs. They have several options to go to with. Fox, who has pitched extremely well, and Looper setting up now for urbina. Whoever they decide to not use as a starter will only strengthen their bullpen. I think Jack McKeon has done a masterful job in getting guys matched up in the right situations. The bullpen will again have to step up big to beat the Yankees and win their second world series.

By far, this has been a sore spot for the Yankees all year with the exception of Mariano Rivera. They need to have some guys step up in this series if the Yankee starters get roughed up at all in the early to middle innings. They will look to Contreras to supply the bulk of the work before handing the ball over to Rivera. Contreras has the arm and stuff if he would stop throwing his split so much and use his mid-nineties fastball to set up the split. They also need Nelson to come up big against the Marlins three, four, five, six, and seven hitters which are all right-handers. I look for Nelson to play big role in this series for the Yanks to control the late innings. I also think the lefty Heredia needs to be ready to face Juan Pierre in key situations to get some big outs. Also, Chad Fox has pitched well out of pen, so if the Marlins have a strength on the mound it's the depth of their staff.

Bullpen advantage: Marlins, because of overall depth.

Defense: This wont take long because I think the Marlins are the best team up the middle in the big leagues. They have speed and the range to cover a lot of ground that would normally be hits. Plus, with Rodriguez behind the plate, it slows if not stops any thoughts of running. Only weakness I see in the Marlins' defense is that Cabrera hasn't played much right field, although he looked great in Game Seven of the Cubs' series. Outfield arms are just average, but Conine gets rid of ball quickly and is accurate.

This has been a problem for the Yankees in both the Twins and Soxs series. They have had trouble catching the ball in the infield, especially at third base. Jeter is sure-handed at short and has made some outstanding plays, but his counterpart Soriano occasionally has some mental lapses and doesn't play to his potential defensively. He looks to tend to carry his struggles at the plate into the field with him, as with a lot of young players. You have Williams, who is outstanding in center, but doesn't throw well and Garcia in right, who doesn't look comfortable at all out there. Then in left you have Matsui, who is a solid outfielder and throws ok. Behind the dish, Pasada does a solid job and really takes control of game with his leadership.

Defense advantage: Marlins.

Offense: The Marlins are coming off a great offensive explosion against the Cubs in beating Prior and Wood back to back, so their confidence should be sky high. It's going to be important that Juan Pierre and Louis Castillo find ways to continue to get on base. When they do, pitchers seem to make a lot more mistakes because the attention they give with their ability to steal bases. It's also important to note that Rodriguez and Conine played in the AL and know this pitching staff, which is important to the other young Marlin hitters.

The Marlins will be facing a totally different type of staff than that of the Cubs. The Yankee staff as a whole has great command and rarely beats themselves by walking folks. Pettite presents the biggest problem with his cut fastball he uses to throw away to lefties and in on righties. Plus, he has a great move and can hold runners, which is imperative against the Marlins team. For the Marlins to win, they have to situational hit with men at second and third and avoid striking out in these situations. Look for Conine to have a big series. Also, if Pierre and Castillo go, so will the Marlins.

Right now, the Yankees are in somewhat of an offensive slump with some of their key guys. It got so bad, Torre moved Giambi to the seven hole and slid Johnson up to the two spot. Giambi responded with two bombs and seemed a little angry with being moved down in the order, but that's just what Joe Torre was looking for. This team was built around power and that's how they have scored a lot of their runs offensively, and a slump for a power team is much more devastating than say for a team like the Marlins. Soriano is the only true threat on the bases, but you can't steal second when you K four times. Jeter needs him on in front of him to get some quality pitches to hit. They also need their lefties to step up against the Marlins' predominately right-handed staff. So that means one of these five players -- Matsui, Posada, Williams, Garcia and Giambi need to produce some RBIs, especially if they have any hope to beat beckett. The Yankees need to get off to a good start and get some momentum rolling offensively.

Offensive advantage: Even.

Bench: This is where the Marlins are at an advantage and also at a disadvantage. Before I confuse you to bad let me explain myself in what I mean. In the National League where there is no DH, so your bench is usually comprised of a lot of role players that can play different positions. The advantage when the Yankees come to town is the fact these guys have been used as pinch hitters and know what to expect in that role. But more importantly, they know how to prepare to come off the bench in big situations. The disadvantage is when the Marlins travel to New York and have to use a DH. The Yankees basically paid Jason Giambi millions to be a DH everyday. The marlins can't afford to sign a one-dimensional player that may get one opportunity a game and that's all. So, Florida will get the luxury of hitting for the pitcher, but it's not going to be in the class of a Giambi. Jack McKeon will just go on instincts and pray he picks the right guy that can make a difference. They do have Todd Hollandsworth, Lenny Harris, Mike Mordecai and Juan Encarcion ready to DH, so Jack has a few options.

The Yankees are geared more towards the DH and have less options for making moves when the DH is not allowed in Florida's park. It's a totally different style of managing versus the American League DH with utilizing double switches and moving guys around. The Yankees are not used to guys coming off the bench and having to perform immediately like the Marlins are. I think obviously the Yankees have an advantage for four games and the Marlins three when they play at home. That means Giambi will have to play first base three games and that could be tough with the ability for Pierre and Castillo to bunt. There is a reason why he is a DH and not an everyday first baseman.

Bench advantage: Yankees, by one game.

Managers: Both clubs have great skippers and a lot of experience. Again, I always favor the National League manager in their home games because a lot more is involved in determining the outcome by your moves. It becomes a nightmare for American :eague teams if your starter gets shelled early and you have to start utilizing your pinch hitters to get back in the game. Jack McKeon has pulled all the right moves so far and his team believes in him. On the other side you have Joe Torre, who keeps the ship heading straight and all he does is win year after year.

Advantage: Torre four games, McLeon three games.

Keys to win: The Marlins have to find a way to win one of the first two games at Yankee Stadium and go home in position to make this another seven game series. It's going to be crucial that someone steps up in the DH spot and produces. I would anticipate Encarcion against lefties and either Hollandsworth or Harris against lefties.

For the Marlins to win this series they have to do two things. One, get quality starts from Penny, Redman, Palvano or Willis. If Beckett can win his two starts, they have to find two more wins out of the remaining four. Because if they are playing from behind after seven its over. Two, they have to capitalize on scoring opportunities with less than two outs. What cost the Sox the series was when they had a chance early to put more runs on the board with first and third and no outs and got nothing. The Marlins can't do this and win.

If the Yankees are going to win the World Series against the Marlins, they are going to have to start swinging the bats better as a team. One guy can not carry them through this alone. Soriano has to start putting the ball in play and getting Jeter and Williams some RBI opportunities. It's also important that Yankees starters who pitch in Florida can bunt and move runners when called upon, even though they haven't done it a whole lot through the year. Certainly, inter-league play has prepared them to a certain degree, but its crucial they execute.

Last of all, the bullpen has to step up and give Rivera some help and give Torre some quality innings. It's going to be very important that they hold runners and control the running game. If not, Florida has a big advantage late in games, manufacturing runs and winning the close games.

Pick: Yankees in seven. After all, that seems to be the magic number in these playoffs. Yankees have too much starting pitching with big game experience and a closer that is dominating. The Yankees will rise to the occasion once again and keep George from blowing another gasket. If only Gagne hadn't blown a save in the All-Star game I would be picking the Marlins in seven.

Q&A with Coach LeClair

J. Hamilton: What's up with Manny Ramirez charging the mound when Roger didn't come close to hitting him, and Pedro slamming Popeye?

Coach LeClair: I felt the same way you did when Clemens threw a pitch head-high, but was nowhere close to Manny Ramirez's head. In fact it, split the plate. A lot led up to that pitch prior to Clemens throwing one up to Ramirez that started this whole feud between the two clubs. It all started when Pedro pitched himself into trouble and had men on second and third with Garcia up to bat. Garcia being a left-handed hitter was probably going to be pitched around or intentionally walked to begin with, so Pedro decided he would try and intimidate the Yankees by drilling Garcia in the back. Unfortunately, it nearly hit Garcia in the head. It was -- in my mind -- definitely intentional and Pedro should have been ejected on the spot, but the umps let Martinez stand out on mound pointing to his head suggesting that, if he wanted to, that's where he would have hit him. Those gestures are really what fired the Yankees up moreso than Garcia being hit.

The next inning, you knew Clemens was going to send a message to the first batter and it just so happened to be Ramirez. What Clemens couldn't do was hit the guy because it would have resulted in an ejection, so Clemens threw a high hard one up and over the plate just to get Boston's attention. It worked. Ramirez immediately took a few steps towards the mound and then both benches emptied. I did notice Ramirez did not go after Clemens in fear. He would probably have gotten body-slammed. So instead, my hero Don Zimmer took off after Pedro and got slammed to the ground.

Here is my take on all this and how it could have been prevented. First, Roger Clemens is by no means an angel on the mound -- his past dictates that -- but in this case, he did nothing wrong. Pedro instigated this whole incident and should have been ejected as I stated before.

Two things would clean this whole mess up if they would let me be commissioner:

One, Pedro would don a batting helmet and hit for himself, so he could get one between the shoulder blades to see how it feels. That means the DH would be eliminated from baseball and save a lot of clubs some cash on one-dimensional players. It will make these guys work harder at staying in the game by playing a position and take away getting their friends beamed. Second, I would eject any player pimping a homerun out of the box. I have about had it with Sammy Sosa's two-hop shuffles out of the box on every deep fly ball hit, or other players standing at the plate admiring homeruns they get paid to hit. Why can't we have more guys like Trot Nixon, who sprint around the base paths after a homerun in respect for his opponent and the game.

One last thing I would do to prevent guys from getting beamed in the head. I would modify the take-out slide at second base and protect my middle guys more. It's a joke the way we let guys go into second base in pro ball. They are nowhere near the base and it's not a slide, rather a roll block. The next thing we will see are guys running into the outfield like football players after a tackle to bring attention to themselves. That's all I have on this one for now. Play hard, respect the game and leave the acting in Hollywood.

Denny: Tim Wakefield has had such great success. Why don't we see more knuckle ballers in the game?

Coach LeClair: Why don't we see more knuckle ballers in the big leagues? For starters, throwing a knuckle ball is an art. It's not easy to learn or teach and you have to master the art before you can have any success. Only a handful of guys have been able to do this over the years at the big league level. It's a totally different release from a natural throwing motion, and you have to keep your wrist stiff, so the ball is pushed out of your hand with your finger tips. Once released, neither the pitcher nor the catcher has a clue where it's going to end up and neither does the manager. If you ask any catcher who they dread catching most it would be a unaminous vote -- the knuckle baller. It goes side-to-side and up-and-down. Where it lands, nobody knows. Most knuckle ball catchers will tell you that you don't catch it, but get in front of it. If you happen to catch the ball clean, you will notice its in tight to the chest. If you reach for a knuckle ball and try to stick it for the umpire, you will miss more than you catch. If you noticed the last few times Wakefield has pitched, you can tell his good knuckle balls by watching to see after the catcher catches it, the ball looks like it's still trying to get out of his mitt. It has a mind of its own and would drive managers and catchers crazy if you had an all knuckle ball staff.

To answer your question, it's hard to teach and master at the same time. Pitching coaches are just not prepared to teach a knuckle ball and very well can't help much. That's all I have, other than that managers don't like having them on their staff because one day its floating like a weeble's head and on other days its like a beach ball.

Denny: What is the general rule on when you take a strike in latter innings of close games?

Coach LeClair: This is a great question and deals with several factors that come into play. Hopefully, I will try to break them down as clearly as possible so you can understand what I am saying. The answers I will give will be directed more for college and professional baseball. When do you take a strike in a tight game? I am assuming this means down two or less in the seventh, eighth and ninth inning.

1. If the guy is a control pitcher and hardly ever walks anybody, chances are our guys will have the green light to swing. What I would tell our hitters is to shrink your hitting zone, which means look for your pitch in one spot and don't chase strikes that you can't handle. In other words, you better not roll over a first-strike breaking ball and make an out. Obviously if this guy has command, we as a team are going to have to beat him with base hits and not baseballs.

2. The guy in the game has a high base on balls to innings pitched, which tells me he lives on the edge and we need to be patient. I would put the take on until they get a strike or have them fake bunt to draw attention to the pitcher and possibly suck the corner guys in a step so when we do hit a ground ball, it may sneak through. The only time I would take this sign off is if the tying run comes to the plate and the hitter is capable of tying the score up with one swing of the bat. Other things I take into consideration if this occurs is the wind. If it's blowing straight in I would probably leave the take on. If it's blowing out, I would take it off, so as you can tell, different things all play a factor in putting the take sign on.

3. What kind of strike zone does the umpire have? Is it a hitter's zone or a pitcher's zone. A hitter's zone umpire makes pitchers work the white part of plate and call nothing off the plate. A pitcher's zone is one that can be expanded four or five inches outside the black. Again, all this is taken into consideration.

4. You should know at some point who has discipline enough at the plate to swing at the first pitch. Some guys hit much better early in the count and some guys hit better deeper in the count. That's where hitting charts come in handy, knowing the averages each guy has for every count. For example, after twenty games, Denny O'Brien is hitting .350 on 0-0 counts. His counterpart Keith LeClair is hitting .120 in the same count, but .400 in 2-1. With the great first-ball hitter, Denny, I let him swing away, As for the other stiff, he better take. As you can tell, more factors go into this thing than just taking a pitch. I have learned over the years that one pitch can be the difference between winning and losing, so don't choke. Make the right call.

Denny: What are your thoughts on letting little leaguers throw breaking balls?

Coach LeClair: The great little league debate. I don't believe it's in the best interest of young twelve and thirteen year-olds to be snapping off breaking balls. I, however, think that it's OK to talk about and show kids the rotation of a breaking ball and the proper mechanics in throwing one. In my opinion, kids should master three pitches at that age and wait until seventh grade before they start trying to master a breaking ball. I would teach my son first to throw a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball and change-up using the thumb on the side because their hands are to small for circle change. I would preach balance and controlling the strike zone with a fastball. I would start at a closer range and would not move back until he has complete command at that distance. Concentrating on balance and mechanics.

If winning and throwing breaking balls is the top priority then this information is of no use to you. But I guarantee you that if your little league staff can command a fastball in the strike zone and throw a change up occasionally, you could win a lot of games. That's my two cents worth on how I would train my son, J.D.

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02.23.07 10:27 AM


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