Michael Conforto has not always played right since joining the Mets in 2015, but for the past two seasons, this has been his primary position. “So I know how to play it,” Conforto said Wednesday after capturing the game-saving basket in the sixth inning, allowing the Mets to steal a 7-6 game from the Orioles from behind.
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“The catch that Mike made, in my mind, was a complete speed-changer,” pitch Rick Porslow said.
Before Conforto squeezed that baseball, the pace was definitely not on New York’s side. The Mets were trying to return from a four-run hole that Porslow put them in, leading to 10 hits in the first three innings of the game. Jeff McNeill brought the Mets closer with a two-run homer, as did Conforto with a solo shot. But the Mets were still trailing by one run, when Jared Hughes took a walk in the sixth and weighed in on two hit batsmen.
The next batsman was Rio Ruiz, who put a pitch on the warning track at right. Conforto followed it, leaping and snatching it into his glove just before reaching the fence.
“It’s definitely the kind of game that you almost surprise yourself with,” Conforto said. “In that case, you have to go up to it.”
Moments later, the Mets tied the game on Andres Giménez homer, before taking his first lead on the eighth Pete Alonso single shot. Almost everyone quipped. But when Edwin Diaz hit a leadoff to end things to finish ninth, all the Mets could talk about.
“It was an incredible game,” Mets manager Luis Rojas said. “I saw him play the best in his outfield career.”
Nobody would know Rosa. He tied the Class A St. Lucie of the Mets in 2015, when Conforto stayed there for his first full professional season. As the outfield instructor of the big league team last season, Rojas worked in right field with Conforto, and placed special emphasis on the balls over his head. In particular, Conforto worked to identify the trajectory of a batting ball, taking his eyes off, wandering to a specific spot on the field, then turning to rediscover the ball before it land.
That’s exactly what he did when Ruiz hit the line drive at a top speed of 99 mph, creating a 20 percent standcast catch probability. While running, Conforto said, he heard members of the Mets’ bullpen shouting that he had enough room to chase the ball, so he put his head down and followed it. Conforto knew how important it was; With two outs, the Basiners of Baltimore can keep in touch, meaning they would score three runs if they missed the grab.
Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said the play created by Conforto should be one of the best plays of the year, especially in the venue and that part of the game. “It was an excellent defensive effort that stopped a lot of rallies and saved a bunch of runs.”
The catch was only part of a banner day for Conforto, who threw out a baserunner in the second inning and homed in the fifth. He now ranks second on the Mets with eight homers and leads the team in batting average (.340), base-base percentage (.428) and position-player WAR (1.7 before Wednesday’s game). For defense, Alonso called Conforto a “silky elk”, saying that “his soul is animal.” Put it all together, and fans have begun to offer Conforto to the team, which is in control through the 2021 season, a contract extension.
Those talks could have taken place in time. For now, the Mets are focused on scoring playoff runs in 2020, knowing that their hopes of playing almost flawless baseball for the rest of September hinge.
He may not have achieved that goal on Wednesday, but Conforto considered it his career’s best catch. To think of another, Conforto said he would have to go back to his college days at Oregon State, known as a prospect for his bat more than his glove.
But Wednesday’s catch?
“That,” Conforto said, “was definitely one of the best.”