When it's full, count on lots of excitement
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There is a unique moment in baseball that happens before something actually happens. It is one of those rare instances in life when you can actually hear mass anticipation, hear the rustle of 50,000-plus people leaning forward in their seats and taking a deep collective breath.
The Yankees' Nick Swisher calls it "the now-or-never time.'' Most of the rest of us call it the full count. And there's nothing more exciting than being in those few short seconds before a 3-and-2 pitch is thrown, especially in the postseason.
Who knows how many games in the American League Championship Series will turn on a full-count pitch?
Just ask Mark Teixeira, who can vividly recall the feeling he had before hitting the two-run homer that lifted the Yankees to a 6-4 win over the Twins in Game 1 of the ALDS. Teixeira had fouled off two straight pitches from reliever Jesse Crain before Crain threw ball three to make it a full count.
"A full count is all about execution, and there's pressure on both sides,'' Teixeira said. "The crowd is up because they know something is going to happen. It's just a great situation to be in. A full count is fun.''
Some players find it more fun than others. Jorge Posada, a .248 hitter in 2010, hit .306 in his 49 at-bats with a full count, also drawing 33 walks for a .585 on-base percentage. Alex Rodriguez, who had a .270 average overall, hit .238 in 63 full-count at-bats (plus 39 walks for a .524 OBP).
Statistically, Teixeira is not the best full-count hitter - he hit .256 overall but only .219 after reaching a full count, although his 40 walks gave him a .519 OBP - but he had the confidence to swing for the stands when Crain threw a fat breaking pitch.
That's because most hitters are trained to believe that it is they who have the pitcher on the ropes in a full count.
"I look at it as a hitter's count,'' Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long said. "It's a situation where the worst thing that can happen is that they get a good pitch and take a good swing. More often than not, a pitcher has to throw a strike if he doesn't want a walk.''
As a team, the Yankees batted .270 in full-count situations with 25 home runs and a .529 slugging percentage.
Swisher said that by the time a batter gets to a full count on a pitcher, especially if it's not early in the game, he has a pretty good idea of what he's going to get on that pitch. "Once you've got to that point, you've seen a minimum of five pitches and you're making him work,'' Swisher said. "You have an idea of what he has to offer that day. I think most hitters love that situation. It's the climax of the event.
"It's feast or famine. You're either getting on base or you're not. And that's the great thing.''
It is not just a situation that hitters thrive in, said Yankees ALCS Game 2 starter Phil Hughes. Hughes said he loves the fact that most hitters believe that a full count favors them; he tries to use that to his advantage.
"I look at a 3-2 count as a bit of an opportunity for me to make a good pitch,'' he said. "You can do a lot of different things. I think a lot of times it's nailed into a pitcher's mind too much that you have to throw a strike here. A lot depends on the situation. A lot of times the hitter is looking for a fastball, so it gives you a wide array of options if you feel like you can get your other pitches over for strikes."
In Game 3 of the ALDS, Hughes triumphed in a key full-count situation. After holding Minnesota scoreless through four innings, Hughes had runners on first and second with two outs in the fifth when Danny Valencia, a .311 hitter in the regular season, came to the plate with two outs. He worked his way to a full count and fouled off a fastball before popping up another fastball to Teixeira for the final out.
"It's really an intense situation,'' Hughes said. "The truth is, no pitcher likes to be there. You would rather get a guy out in three pitches. But it is a very thrilling feeling when you're there.''
Nothing like it
Joba Chamberlain likens the situation to a fourth down in football or a last-second shot in a basketball game, except that it can come at any time in a game.
"You always hope you don't get there, but I personally sort of like the feeling," Chamberlain said. "There's just so much riding on it and every batter is different. Some guys are aggressive. Some guys stand there and won't swing. Depending on the situation, there are a lot of different things going on. And there's so much riding on it.
"Come to think of it, there's really nothing else exactly like it.''