Two strikes might as well be three in MLB. But the Rockies are among the best in tough counts.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Bud Black threatened to climb on his soapbox. The Rockies manager, lobbed a softball question about hitting when a batter’s back is against the count, bit his tongue, then let loose.

“Over the years, a strikeout is now considered by some people to be OK,” Black said Wednesday behind his desk at Salt River Fields. “Because an out is an out. Why sacrifice power or a good swing at the expense of just putting the ball in play?”

Then he really got going.

“I’ve heard that argument. I fall on the other side of that argument,” Black said. “I fall on the two-strike approach — fight to make contact and put the ball in play.”

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Basic baseball rules call for three strikes in an out. But it might as well be two. A two-strike count is a nearly no-win situation for major league batters, who hit a slim .176 on two-strike counts last season, Two strikes is the new three.

But the Rockies were among the best teams in baseball hitting in a two-strike count. Colorado fared significantly better than the rest of the league, hitting .191, a difference of 15 extra hits in every 85 at-bats over the league average. That ranked third overall, behind only Boston and Miami.

And they hit for power too. The Rockies’ .582 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) ranked second behind only the Red Sox (.582).

DJ LeMahieu , Colorado’s second baseman, won a National League batting title last season in large part by hitting in all counts. He hit .276 in two-strike counts. Only Miami’s Martin Prado (.281) and Washington’s Daniel Murphy (.280) hit better in lost-cause counts. LeMahieu’s on-base percentage with two strikes, at .366, trailed only the L.A. Angels ‘ Mike Trout, at .375.

“I’m trying to be a good hitter as opposed to not trying to strike out,” LeMahieu said. “That has to do with slowing the game down. If I’m up there worrying about striking out, I’m probably going to strike out.”

Chris Coduto, Getty Images

DJ LeMahieu of the Colorado Rockies poses for a portrait during photo day at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick on Feb. 23, 2017 in Scottsdale, Ariz.

LeMahieu won a batting title because he’s made steady improvement, creating big jumps the past three seasons in his OPS (.663 in 2015 to .746 to .911) and in average (.267 to .301 to .348). His basic approach to hitting grew from a hope-for-the-best philosophy to more focus, he said. Still, though, he allows for a mental adjustment when he is one strike from an out.

“I used to be more of a ‘swing at it if it’s in the zone’ kind of hitter,” LeMahieu said. “I was more worried about making good contact than I was about driving the ball. They weren’t really good at-bats. I was just swinging if it was in the zone. Now I’m looking for my pitch early in the count. And if I get to two strikes, then I go to that other approach, where I swing if it’s in the zone.”

Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia for years was the best two-strike hitter in baseball and remains near the top of the list because he is able to make a high amount of contact. He had just two fewer hits than LeMahieu last season.

What nags at Black, though, is the idea that a swing is a swing and an out is an out and there is no reason to change your identity based on a strike count. Why mess up your swing just because the pitcher is ahead? But that works for some hitters. Boston’s David Ortiz was a slugger in his blood. He hit .258 with 14 home runs last season in two-strike counts, stats not far out of line with his overall numbers. Other players shorten their swings, put less weight on the back leg or choke up, sacrificing power to put the ball in play.

And some players take advantage of being down in the count. Colorado center fielder Charlie Blackmon had a .427 slugging percentage, the sixth best in baseball, with 14 home runs on two strikes a year ago. He ranked one spot better than teammate Nolan Arenado , who slugged .421. Three Rockies ranked in the top 25.

Whatever the approach, Black hopes the Rockies can extrapolate an above-average ability to hit when the odds are against them into winning a division when the odds say they cannot get past the Dodgers or Giants.

“You have to believe, ‘I’m fighting, this guy is not gonna get me,’” Black said.

Against the count

The Rockies ranked among the best teams in baseball last season when hitting in two-strike counts. A look at how they fared as a team and individually in 2016:

Batting average
1. Martin Prado, Miami … .281
2. Daniel Murphy, Washington … .280
3. DJ LeMahieu, Colorado … .276
13. Nolan Arenado, Colorado … .254
MLB average … .176

On-base percentage
1. Mike Trout, L.A. Angels … .375
2. DJ LeMahieu, Colorado … .366
3. Robbie Grossman, Minnesota … .349
MLB average … .246

Team batting average
1. Boston … .209
2. Miami … .199
3. Colorado .191
MLB average … .176

Team slugging percentage
1. Boston … .324
2. Colorado … .320
3. Baltimore … .301
MLB average … .276

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