After New York Mets right fielder Michael Conforto had beaten out an infield single, stolen a base and homered last Wednesday afternoon, he stood at his locker and wore a gray T-shirt emblazoned with “Pressure is a privilege.”
The Mets had lost for a second straight day, this time 3-2. Conforto’s final at-bat, which came in the ninth inning, ended with a shot that was caught a few feet short of the right-field fence. Despite all he had done, including homering for a second straight game, the former Oregon State star lamented his inability to finish the job.
“We didn’t do enough when we were here,” he said as the team readied to fly to St. Louis for a weekend series. “All aspects of the game are important: defense, base running, pitching, hitting. When you’re playing teams that are as good as we have in the division, we have to put the whole thing together.”
Conforto, 26, has been the full package thus far. As the lone Met to appear in the starting lineup every day this season, he has reached base in 13 of the last 14 games, a stretch in which he had 12 extra-base hits, 12 RBIs and 13 runs scored.
What has been most noteworthy to Mets manager Mickey Callaway, though, is Conforto’s comfort level, not only as the team’s cleanup hitter but also as a clubhouse leader. As the Mets have mixed in outside talent and promoted rising prospects this season, Conforto is staking his role as a homegrown anchor.
“He’s being more and more vocal,” Callaway said. “You don’t want to ever change who you are to be a leader, and he’s doing a good job of just evolving into one of ours.”
Conforto took a step back from baseball after the Mets finished 77-85 last year. He trekked home to Seattle, where he watched all of the playoffs with family and friends. It was a reminder of the stage he had been on when the Mets made the World Series in 2015 and he stroked two home runs in a Game 4 loss against the Kansas City Royals. He welcomed the distance as he unwound from a disappointing season in Queens.
“Mileagewise, it is very far,” Conforto said. “I created some space between New York and myself.”
It was during that time that Conforto received a call from Brodie Van Wagenen, the Mets’ new general manager. Van Wagenen, a former agent, informed Conforto, a client of Van Wagenen’s old rival, Scott Boras, that he had admired him from afar. Van Wagenen also told Conforto of players he aimed to bring to the Mets, and Conforto later watched as the pieces filled in around him. He noted a new energy building.
“He had a lot of motivation to change the culture throughout the organization, bringing in new guys and faces,” Conforto said of Van Wagenen.
The Mets diversified their portfolio around Conforto, whom the team viewed as a cornerstone on offense. Robinson Cano, a second baseman whose smooth left-handed swing Conforto long admired, and closer Edwin Diaz were acquired via a trade with Seattle. Jeff McNeil, whom Conforto had played with in the minors, was sticking around after earning a spot with his bat last summer, and Pete Alonso was on his way to making the major league roster.
After a season defined largely by a lack of offensive production, Conforto was ready to have them hitting in front of him, with catcher Wilson Ramos, another new steady bat, following behind him.
“We’ve got guys with power, we’ve got guys who can spray the ball all over the field, we have speed, we have guys with incredible plate discipline,” said Conforto, an All-Star in 2017. “I think it’s a winning formula. As we’ve shown, we can put a lot of runs up.”
Conforto, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in 2012 and Pac-12 Player of the Year in both 2013 and 2014, rose through the organizational ranks faster than McNeil or Alonso did. Selected by the Mets out of Oregon State with the 10th pick in the 2014 amateur draft, he had been marked for the majors from the start.
At 21, he made his minor league debut in Brooklyn. The next season, he drove in a run during his first game in the majors, but then found himself playing with Class AA Binghamton and in Port St. Lucie, Florida, before returning to Queens. In need of more work, he was sent to Class AAA Las Vegas, a step he had initially skipped.
“It was kind of bitter to go back down,” he said.
On the night he arrived in Vegas, his new manager, Wally Backman, approached him in the dugout. Conforto had just come off a flight and made it to the ballpark during the fourth inning. It was now the seventh.
“They’re going to bring this righty in, we need a lefty,” Backman said. “Can you hit?”
“Absolutely,” Conforto said. “Yeah, I’ll hit.”
Conforto stepped to the plate. The pitcher proceeded to hit him.
“Welcome to Vegas,” Conforto said. “Right in the arm.”
Conforto carries the memories of his Vegas bruise and his World Series homers with him as he preaches balance this season. Whether it was hitting a home run in three consecutive games or drawing one of the six walks the Mets were issued in an inning against the Minnesota Twins, Conforto has found comfort in leading by example.
As he packed his bag for St. Louis, he reiterated what he felt was necessary after losing a series to division rival.
“It’s back to work,” he said. “Back to work.”