Ask a pitcher to name a heaven-on-earth experience, and most will tell you it's having a two-strike advantage on a hitter. Curt Schilling says, "it's like being able to hold a guy under water." There are unlimited ways to finish off the at-bat -- teasing a hitter with a pitch just off the plate, or going right after him for the in-your-face, three-pitch strikeout.
Regardless of the strategy, the underlying philosophy is the same: the closer a hitter gets to Strike Three, the greater his panic. Not surprisingly, pitchers usually win this one-sided battle. With an 0-2 count, American League hitters were kept to a .195 average last year. National Leaguers fared even worse, batting just .187.
But what happens if the hitter is oblivious to that behind-in-the-count fear? What if he does some of his best work at two strikes? Welcome to Side B of that heaven-on-earth phenomenon, embodied by Barry Bonds, who hits home runs at any point in the count, and Ichiro Suzuki, who, thanks to his unique swing, has the ability to keep an at-bat alive even when he's down 0-2.
Scouts were divided as to who represented the greater threat -- Bonds and his muscles or Ichiro and his creative mechanics. So we hereby award the Hot Stove's Two-Strike Hitting crown to both of them, with a respectful nod towards Oakland's Jason Kendall, who batted .341 swinging at 0-2 pitches last year. That's one of many reasons why A's GM Billy Beane coveted him.
Kendall, like Bonds and Ichiro, has a rare ability to not let an 0-2 count turn him into a bad hitter. But what makes Bonds and Ichiro unique is how dangerous they are despite the wide philosophical gulf that separates them. Ichiro frustrates pitchers, while Bonds intimidates them. Pick your 0-2 poison.
In winning the AL batting crown last year, Ichiro struck out just 63 times, and batted .271 when he was down two strikes. Actually, there were hitters like Kendall who posted a higher average in those situations. And Ichiro struck out more often than Bonds and the Reds' Sean Casey, among others. But no one in the big leagues can extend an at-bat and purposely foul off as many 0-2 pitches as Ichiro -- a gift that comes from his bizarre half-slap swing.
It's not exactly quick wrists that translated into a .372 season average, since Ichiro tends to drag the bat through the strike zone. But his fast hands make up for that, and allow him to wait longer than most hitters before committing to a pitch. Indeed, there are times when it appears Ichiro's bat is prying the ball right out of the catcher's glove.
Talk about driving a pitcher crazy. Even when he was down 0-2 last year. Ichiro struck out only 10 times in 48 at-bats, meaning there was only a one-in-five chance a pitcher could sneak Strike Three past him. It's due to the swing that would never make it to an instructional video.
As Bret Boone once said of the Mariners' right fielder, "the pitches he fouls off are amazing. He'll have two strikes on him and he'll get a breaking ball just off the plate and he'll look like he's running to first base but he'll still get just enough of the ball to foul it off. And then he'll hit a grounder and beat it out. It's funny to watch. Where there's a will, there's a way."
One American League scout likened Ichiro to Wade Boggs, who's on his way to the Hall of Fame for his own ability to wear down pitchers. "Ichiro does the exact same thing," the scout said. "The only difference between him and Boggs is that (Ichiro) can run. Every time he slaps that ball, you're talking about a potential infield single."
Infielders say it doesn't matter what the count is -- Ichiro is sometimes so locked in, he can actually direct a batted ball to the gap of his choosing. That's not supposed to be possible on a regular basis, but Derek Jeter spoke of the difficulty of defending against a hitter with such bat-control.
"If he sees you take a step in, he'll punch the ball right by you, like he was aiming a hit," the Yankees shortstop said. "I don't know anyone else who can do that. And the way he gets out of the box, forget it. If you have to go more than a step to your right or left to get the ball, he'll probably beat it out."
The only surcharge Suzuki pays for his mini-swing, of course, is diminished power. That's a reasonable tradeoff, but it only makes one appreciate just how dangerous Bonds is, since he never cuts down on his swing. That lack of fear translated into a .311 average last year after falling behind 0-2.
Even more impressive is that Bonds hit four home runs in 45 at-bats in those situations, which speaks to an obvious point: the game's greatest home run hitter isn't interested in curbing his swing with two strikes. Give him any breathing room, and you'll regret it.
Indeed, Bonds was only 1-for-11 last year when he swung at an 0-2 pitch. But if Bonds had the chance to see a fourth and fifth pitch, his average jumped more than 300 points.
One National League scout says, "you can just see Barry locking in on a guy. The longer he's at the plate, it's a pretty good chance the pitcher is going to make a mistake and groove one."
Which is another way of repeating a decade-old scouting report on Bonds: unsafe at any count.
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.