What. A. Catch. You need to watch this one

September 10th, 2020

NEW YORK -- Right field at Citi Field is not an easy place to play. Rather than run smoothly from the foul pole to right-center field, the fence juts back at a hard angle, before protruding out again on the other end. It features chain-link segments throughout that area, only partially padded.

Michael Conforto hasn’t always played right since joining the Mets in 2015, but for the past two seasons, it’s been his primary position. “So I know how to play it,” Conforto said after making a game-saving basket catch in the sixth inning Wednesday, allowing the Mets to come from behind to steal a 7-6 game from the Orioles.

“The catch that Mike made was, in my mind, a complete momentum-changer,” pitcher Rick Porcello said.

Before Conforto squeezed that baseball, momentum was decidedly not on New York’s side. The Mets were trying to work their way back from the four-run hole that Porcello put them in, allowing 10 hits over the game’s first three innings. Jeff McNeil brought the Mets closer with a two-run homer, as did Conforto with a solo shot. But the Mets were still trailing by a run when Jared Hughes loaded the bases on a walk and two hit batsmen in the sixth.

The next batter was Rio Ruiz, who lined a pitch to the warning track in right. Conforto chased it, leaped and snared it in his glove just before reaching the fence.

“It’s definitely the kind of play you’re almost surprised yourself,” Conforto said. “In that situation, you’ve just got to go up for it.”

Moments later, the Mets tied the game on an Andrés Giménez homer, before taking their first lead on a Pete Alonso solo shot in the eighth. Nearly everyone chipped in. But after Edwin Díaz pitched around a leadoff hit in the ninth to end things, all the Mets could talk about was Conforto.

“That was an unbelievable play,” Mets manager Luis Rojas said. “That was the best play I’ve seen him make in his outfield career.”

Rojas would know as well as anyone. He managed the Mets’ Class A St. Lucie affiliate in 2015, when Conforto stopped there in his first full professional season. As the big league team’s outfield instructor last season, Rojas worked daily with Conforto in right field, placing special emphasis on balls over his head. Specifically, Conforto worked on judging a batted ball’s trajectory, taking his eye off it, sprinting to a specific spot on the field, then turning to find the ball again before it lands.

That’s exactly what he did when Ruiz hit a line drive at 99 mph, creating a Statcast catch probability of 20 percent. While running, Conforto said, he heard members of the Mets’ bullpen yelling that he had enough room to chase the ball, so he put his head down and chased it. Conforto knew how important it was; with two outs, Baltimore’s baserunners could run on contact, meaning three runs would likely score if he missed the grab.

“That play Conforto made has to be one of the best plays of the year, especially in that spot and that part of the game,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “That was an outstanding 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 also threw out a baserunner in the second inning and homered in the fifth. He now ranks second on the Mets with eight homers and leads the team in batting average (.340), on-base percentage (.428) and position-player WAR (1.7 before Wednesday’s play). As for the defense, Alonso calls Conforto “the silky elk,” saying that’s “his spirit animal.” Put it all together, and fans have begun clamoring for the team to offer Conforto, who is under control through the 2021 season, a contract extension.

Those talks could happen in time. For now, the Mets are focused on making a playoff run in 2020, knowing their hopes hinge upon playing near-flawless baseball for the rest of September.

They may not have achieved that goal on Wednesday, but Conforto made up for it with what he considers the best catch of his career. Asked to think of another, Conforto said he would have to go back to his college days at Oregon State, coming up as a prospect known more for his bat than his glove.

But Wednesday’s catch?

“That,” Conforto said, “was probably one of the best for sure.”