Braves' Conley gets his uniform dirty in AFL

October 13th, 2022

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- There are some well-worn baseball axioms that, while overused, are very true when attributed to the right players. Perhaps the one used the most is calling a scrappy, hard-nosed player a “gamer” or a “real baseball player.” Sounds vanilla, but it’s a compliment.

Anyone who watched Cal Conley on Thursday afternoon would agree that he is indeed a “real baseball player.” The Scottsdale Scorpions’ leadoff hitter did a little bit of everything in his team’s 14-8 victory over the Surprise Saguaros, going 2-for-4 with a triple, two walks, three RBIs and a stolen base. He’s the kind of player who very rarely finishes a game with a clean uniform.

“A big part of my game is just playing to win and doing whatever it takes, so sometimes it gets a little dirty,” the Braves’ No. 12 prospect said with a smile. “It’s a little more laid back here, but every game I play to win, that’s all my focus is. That’s my key for me, if I want to play well, I have to play to win.”

Scottsdale trailed 8-4 after five innings, but scored four times in the sixth and six more times in the ninth and Conley was in the middle of most of it. He had tripled and scored in the second -- “Triples and inside-the-park home runs are the two best hits, I think,” Conley said -- and his two-run single in the sixth brought the Scorpions to within a run. After advancing to second and stealing third, he scored the tying run that inning. He capped things off with a bases-loaded walk in that big ninth inning.

He obviously wasn’t the only hitter in the Scorpions lineup who produced on Thursday. Outfielder Heston Kjerstad, the Orioles' No. 9 prospect, continued to swing a very hot bat, going 3-for-6 with a homer (his third) and four RBIs. Red Sox catcher Stephen Scott hit a long home run to center field and drove in the go-ahead run in the ninth. Conley doesn’t want to draw too many conclusions for how well he’s been seeing the ball this fall, but feels he’s closer to where he wants to be.

“Right now, it’s a little early,” said Conley, who lifted his average to .308. “I’m not trying to do too much. Just trying to get the barrel on the ball and see what can happen.”

That was a trap the Braves’ 2021 fourth-round pick had fallen into during the early stages of his career. The Texas Tech product does have some power, but that isn’t his carrying tool, and he sometimes tried too hard to get to it. He did play across two levels of A ball in his first full season, finishing with 16 homers and 36 steals.

“Coming into professional baseball, I think I got a little pull-happy and tried to do too much at the plate,” Conley said. “I got humbled a little bit and I’m trying to get back to my game, which is hitting the ball in the gaps and getting to show my speed on the bases. I think that’s helped me a lot this year, toning it back down a little bit and control the barrel a little bit more.”

As a switch-hitter, that means he has to tone it down from both sides of the plate. He had plate appearances both left-handed and right-handed on Thursday and he admits it’s hard to work on two swings as he tries to stick to a consistent approach, especially because the two sides won’t always be in sync at the same time.

“With switch-hitting, every day your swing doesn’t feel great from both sides,” Conley said. “Some days it’s one, some days it’s the other. About five days a month, maybe, it’s both sides feel really good, but whatever feels good that day, you roll with it.”

Being the gamer that he is, he also knows he can help his team in more than one way, even if both swings aren’t working particularly well.

“If I’m not hitting well, I can play a little defense, draw a walk, steal a couple of bases, score a run,” Conley said. “There are a lot of ways to win other than swinging the bat. I try to attack it from all ways.”