At center of the diamond, it's hurlers who hold the key

Yankees and Marlins each have impressive pitchers - making series hard to predict.

So far, both the New York Yankees and the Florida Marlins have shown they have pitchers to remind the nation of its baseball heritage of Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, and Nolan Ryan. There are fastballs whizzing past batters at 98 miles per hour. Curveballs arc with the precision of a rocket launching into orbit. And some pitches simply defy gravity or maybe add a new wrinkle to the laws of physics.

Tough pitching has allowed the Marlins and Yankees to split the first two games of the World Series. Many analysts - including the managers - think pitching will also be the most important factor in the games ahead.

"In a short series, you need to get outstanding pitching," says Gabriel Schechter, a researcher at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. "There are two things that shift the momentum: strong pitching and a dramatic ending to a game."

A few dramatic endings aside, pitching has played its usual key role this postseason. The Yankee pitching staff stifled the Minnesota Twins, a team with speed and talent. And the Boston Red Sox held four of the Yankee starters to under .200 batting averages.

Likewise, a two-hit game by Marlin starter Josh Beckett took away momentum from the Chicago Cubs. "It made the other Marlin pitchers see that the Cubs could be had," says Mr. Schechter.

Schechter also notes that through the history of the sport, there has hardly ever been a championship team that did not have great pitching, either from the starting rotation or the bullpen. This was evident Saturday, when the Marlins' pitching kept the Yankees from scoring despite numerous opportunities.

One of the major reasons for the success of the Marlins pitchers is their catcher, Ivan Rodriguez. He's a 5 ft., 9 in. scrapper that New York Yankees manager Joe Torre says "probably could be the best all-around catcher that's maybe ever played the game."

One of Rodriguez's assets is his wide experience. With a dozen years in the major leagues, including 11 in the American League, he knows the Yankees well. At the same time, he has been patient with the Marlins' young pitchers. "He's been able to win their confidence and kind of coax them out for six or seven good innings," says Jack McKeon, the Marlins' manager.

One of those is Beckett, a 6 ft., 5 in. right-hander whose blazing fastball reminds some of a younger Roger Clemens - who will pitch what might be his last game Wednesday in Miami. Growing up in Texas, Beckett admits he idolized Clemens, a fellow Texan. "I know when I was younger, I used to try to pitch like him ... definitely in the street when we were playing home-run derby," he says.

Since the teams didn't face each other this year, both have relied on scouts, who sit behind home plate with radar guns and notebooks to profile hitters' weaknesses and tendencies. "We picked up some very, very delicate information that we hadn't had before," says McKeon.

But Torre believes it's a mistake to rely too much on such scouting reports. "You don't want to get away from the pitcher's strength just to go to the hitter's weakness," he says. "I'd rather go strength against strength."

In fact, the hitters are more than aware of what they will be facing. Torre says he prefers that the hitter come to bat with a plan. "Even if your plan is wrong, you just go to the plate, home plate, and have a plan, what you're gonna try to do."

Before Game 2, for example, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter offered up his idea of his plan for batting against Mark Redman, the starter for the Marlins. "He's the type of guy that's not gonna give in," he says. "You have to hit his pitch ... see what pitches he has working, and go from there," says the pin-striper, who was one for two against the lefty.

At the same time, pitchers are trying to figure out what works for them. Yankees southpaw Andy Pettitte, the starter in Game 2, says he realized quickly that he had a good fastball. "That sets up my cutter," he says, describing a pitch that looks like a fastball but dives in and down on right-handed hitters. From there, he says, he developed a rhythm that carried him through the game. He ended up pitching 8-2/3 innings, giving up only six hits.

"Pettitte has pitched in Game 2 each time after a loss and won, and that gives the team a psychological boost," says Schechter.

To longtime observers of the game, this type of performance is not unusual. "Experience will play out over the long haul," says Ozzie Smith, a Hall of Fame shortstop. He believes the seasoned Yankee starters will prevail over the younger - although probably stronger - Marlins. "Pitchers like Dontrelle Willis [for the Marlins] have inconsistent release points, and veterans force them to throw strikes. And you know as a hitter that the more strikes you swing at, the better the results."

The next three games are in Miami before the series returns to a frigid New York - if necessary.

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