Down to your last strike. Just read that again. Sounds daunting, right? Margin for error, leeway, wiggle room ... these are the suppliers of second chances that so often sustain us. But when you're down to your last strike -- in life, in love and certainly in baseball -- it's time to deliver or be dismissed.
While pitchers pull out their putaways, often aggressively searching for that final strike, hitters usually have to take a more defensive stance in two-strike counts. And those who can maintain their sense of calm and their sense of the strike zone are the ones undaunted by the dilemma. "You've got to be able to relax in those situations," Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon said. "The pressure's on the pitcher, not you. Adrenaline is a wonderful thing at times. At other times, it can be the kiss of death." And if a team has a bunch of ballplayers who can keep a handle on their heartbeats and battle at the plate with two strikes, well, the offense is that much better for it.
"There are only so many guys who can hit three or four in the lineup," veteran infielder Mark DeRosa said. "I think the other guys need to adjust their approaches with two strikes to give themselves the best chance not only to be successful and get hits and get on base but to find ways to help their team win." The key, hitters and hitting coaches will tell you, is to not automatically expand your zone to the extreme just because you're down to your final strike. Rather, you have to protect the plate. One of the better two-strike hitters in baseball also happens to be one of the better hitters in baseball, period. And a big part of Matt Holliday's overall success is his ability to come through in two-strike counts. His .689 OPS in those situations, dating back to 2005, is the eighth best among qualifying hitters in that span, and he said it all comes down to playing the percentages. "You have to make sure that you're on the pitches over the plate," Holliday said. "A lot of times, if you get caught looking in, your first reaction is off the ball and you lose track of offspeed pitches going away from you. So for me, I try to stay out over the plate. And if they beat me in with a good fastball, sometimes you just tip your cap. I'd rather that than be conscious of the pitch in when a high percentage of the pitches they throw are going to be on the outside part of the plate and breaking balls going off the plate. That's where you seem to chase is when you're concerned about the pitch in." Cardinals hitting coach Mark McGwire agreed. "I don't know if that many people make a big living hitting a ball that's inside corner off the black or outside corner off the black," McGwire said. "You make a good living as a hitter hitting mistakes, balls over the white of the plate. So what Matt said is absolutely correct. There are days guys are going to make pitches like that. But if you start forcing yourself swinging at balls that are off the plate because you're behind the count, you're in trouble." Naturally, not everybody is in full agreement on this notion. Rays veteran utility man Jeff Keppinger has a ridiculously low career strikeout rate of 6.1 percent because of his willingness to take some chances with two strikes. "Put in play what you can put in play," Keppinger said. "I don't want to put it all on the umpires. They miss calls sometimes -- a little off and a little bit up and down. So you can't be too picky with two strikes. You have to expand your zone probably about two inches both ways out of the strike zone. And if you think you can touch the ball with the bat, you probably should be swinging." Whether or not there is full agreement on the zone particulars, one thing hitters and hitting coaches all stressed when the two-strike topic was broached was that you can't go up to the plate fearing two-strike situations. "I think Victor Martinez, in all my years of baseball, is the very best I've ever seen, in terms of the ability and the willingness to go to two strikes to get to the pitch he wants to get to," McClendon said. "The biggest thing is overcoming the fear of striking out." That fear will force you to chase early in the count. But if you're willing to wait for something you can handle, you just might find it with two strikes, and you'll be working the pitcher's pitch count up in the process. "The big thing is not to get in a hurry," Rangers veteran Michael Young said. "A lot of guys, their heart rate goes up. They start worrying that the at-bat is going bad and what the pitcher is throwing." In the end, it comes down to maturity, and that can only come with at-bats, with opportunities and with the trial and error of finding your two-strike approach. "It's a mentality more than a physical thing," Holliday said. "You have to be willing to stick to your plan." And that's good advice for anyone literally or figuratively down to their last strike.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.