Astros, Olson, Castellanos finding success with 2 strikes


HOUSTON — For Yuli Gurriel and the Houston Astros, the fight is on when the count gets to two strikes.

There is nothing complicated about their success, either.

“You got to have pride,” manager Dusty Baker said. “You got to have pride in it, like when you were a kid playing strikeout with your little brother. They say strikeouts aren’t important, but you see how many games that we won just by putting the ball in play.”

The Astros are on top of the AL West, and their two-strike approach is a key part of one of baseball’s best lineups. Gurriel leads the majors with a .291 batting average with two strikes heading into play on Wednesday, and teammates Michael Brantley (.267) and Yordan Alvarez (.252) rank among the top six on the list. Baker’s club has a big league-best .205 team batting average with two strikes — easily clearing the MLB average of .161.

While strikeouts, spin rates and sticky substances have been the talk of baseball this year, Gurriel and Co. are among a group of hitters still putting up quite a fight with two strikes.

“I was taught you get more aggressive with two strikes because you don’t leave it up to the umpire, within reason,” said Baker, a former big league outfielder. “So, you search for the ball. One of the keys is not to guess. You see guys guessing on your team or other teams and a lot of times they’re destined for something that they really can’t hit in the first place — a good breaking ball.”

Gurriel hit .216 with two strikes in 2020. He said he had a lot of trouble with those counts last year, so he worked on his approach in the offseason.

“A lot of times with a 3-2 count or with any two-strike count, I was taking kind of like a home-run swing and not really taking into account what the situation was,” he said through an interpreter. “So this year I’ve worked on shortening my swing up a lot with two strikes and I think that’s helped a lot.”

Houston’s 19-8 June heading into Wednesday’s game against Baltimore includes a four-game sweep of the AL Central-leading Chicago White Sox, who lost their best two-strike hitter when Nick Madrigal tore his right hamstring June 9. Madrigal hit .284 in two-strike counts this year.

“It’s the mentality. From pitch to pitch, I really don’t think that it changes,” Madrigal said. “No matter if there’s one strike or two strikes or however many strikes there are, I treat every pitch the same. For me personally, that works. I don’t know if it would work for everyone.”

With his 5-foot-8 frame and elite bat-to-ball skills, Madrigal is a throwback to a bygone era, before the three true outcomes — home runs, walks and strikeouts — took over baseball. Just like Los Angeles Angels infielder David Fletcher, who led the majors with a .322 batting average in two-strike counts in 2020.

But some sluggers also are finding success on the brink of striking out.

Gurriel also leads baseball with a .406 on-base percentage with two strikes. Oakland Athletics first baseman Matt Olson, listed at 6-5 and 225 pounds, has a big league-best .478 slugging percentage in such situations.

“I think there’s a lot that goes into it,” Olson said. “I feel like my swing is in a better spot right now, and it’s leading to some better two-strike results.”

Olson has been choking up on his bat in spots after experimenting with the change in the offseason.

“I tried it out, and I’ve liked the way it felt,” he said. “It’s not something that I’m necessarily married to, but for now, it’s been feeling good and working.”

Cincinnati Reds outfielder Nick Castellanos is one of the early contenders for NL MVP, and two-strike hitting is a big reason why. He ranks eighth in the majors with a .245 batting average in such situations.

Castellanos drove in seven runs during a 12-4 victory over Philadelphia on Monday, capping the performance with an RBI double on a 0-2 pitch from Enyel De Los Santos.

“I think this year as a team I would say we’ve improved over last season, really simplifying as far as not trying to do too much with two strikes and thinking about putting the ball in play,” Reds manager David Bell said.

Cohen reported from Chicago. AP Baseball Writer Janie McCauley and AP Sports Writer Mitch Stacy also contributed to this report.

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