From early age, Conforto flashed potential
Stomping Grounds: Former coach recalls Mets rookie turning on 90-mph heat at 13
NEW YORK -- Michael Conforto's swing -- the short, compact left hook Keith Hernandez compares to Don Mattingly's -- was sculpted late in the night of Northwest winters.
As a teenager, Conforto played for Ray Atkinson's Seattle-based travel teams in the summer. When the temperature dropped, Conforto showed up after football practice (he played quarterback and safety) multiple times a week to Atkinson's batting cage in nearby Maltby, to swing as his teeth chattered. Regulars nicknamed the poorly insulated warehouse "The Rocky Balboa Training Facility."
"You could have put the beef in there it was so cold," Atkinson said.
In gloves and layers, Conforto showed early the potential that makes him an important piece, already at just 22, of the Mets' postseason dreams heading into Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Friday against the Dodgers. Though Conforto started 49 second-half games, manager Terry Collins will use him primarily as a late-inning threat off the bench with three left-handed starters sprinkling Los Angeles' rotation. That's because New York's roster features multiple right-handed veterans with track records of hitting lefties, but also because Collins has seen little to prove Conforto should struggle against powerful bullpen arms.
The fastball has never given him much trouble.
"He was 13 years old and we cranked up the pitching machine to 90 mph," Atkinson said. "We had 18-year-old kids in there working out and trying to hit in. Michael walks in there and turns on a 90-mph fastball."
"Oh my God," Atkinson thought. "How did a 13-year-old do that?"
Nine years later, Conforto is garnering similar reactions. Just 133 Minor League games segmented his career at Oregon State and his Mets debut. In 174 at-bats since, New York's No.1 (10th overall) pick in the 2014 Draft slugged .506, second among NL rookies with at least 100 at-bats. Conforto -- who has also exceeded defensive expectations in left field -- will be the fourth-youngest player on an NL playoff roster, behind Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Corey Seager.
"I have to pinch myself, it's been a whirlwind," Conforto said. "I try to take deep breaths and slow things down. For the most part, it's about having confidence and trusting I belong here."
He spent most of his life playing above his age, but not over his head. Conforto was the only 11-year-old on the Redmond (Wash.) team that represented the Northwest Region in the 2004 Little League World Series. He played on 18-year-old summer teams as a 15-year-old, and once blasted four home runs in a tournament game in Reno, Nev.
At Oregon State, Conforto set the school's single-season RBI record his freshman year. That summer, he played alongside Kris Bryant, Carlos Rodon, Marco Gonzales and others on the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team. Conforto was an All-American his sophomore year and a finalist his junior year for the Golden Spikes Award, given to the country's best amateur player.
"He made a big jump," said Beavers head coach Pat Casey, who played Minor League baseball in the 1980s against clubs managed by Collins. "I don't think there were a lot of people who projected him out of high school to be a top 10 pick in the country. I credit him for having the will and putting in the effort."
In the offseason, when most players trek back to sun-soaked homes, Conforto puts that effort in at Atkinson's new facility in Kirkland. It wasn't long ago that Conforto was one of the kids showing up to watch local product Travis Snider return home to hit. Now, Conforto jerseys hang over the cage, souvenirs from a recent youth team's trip to New York.
"And we have heat now, so we kind of upgraded throughout the years," Atkinson said. "But he owes me some new nets. He keeps putting holes in them."