Anger pushed everything else away, leaving no room for a plan or an approach or anything that might promote the smooth, controlled swing that had inspired boundless visions of stardom.
All that remained was self-loathing.
Michael Conforto reached the point of submission on June 1 during the first at-bat of an awful day when he whiffed for the first of his four strikeouts against the White Sox. It embodied the torment of his ongoing slump, the worst and the longest of his big-league career.
The fury from leaving runners on base served as an accelerant, turning his internal fire into a raging inferno. Instead of containing the flames, he allowed them to spread, poisoning the rest of his at-bats on the way to an 0-for-6 afternoon.
“I went up there and I just wanted to hit the ball so hard,” he said recently. “I wanted to make up for the at-bat that happened earlier in the game. I wanted to go up there and I don’t know, prove to myself, prove to everybody, that I could make up for it. It was an angry at-bat.”
Typically unflappable, Conforto couldn’t remember the last time he had been locked in this hitters’ hell, when emotions reduced him to swinging with what he called “blind anger.” He knew only that it predated his time as a major-leaguer and that he had no idea how to escape.
He still doesn’t.
‘A big test’
Eventually, Conforto will find his way. This is what the Mets believe, even five weeks into his tailspin. He has too much talent to falter all year. He has shown too much for them to believe that he’ll be overcome by the storm, no matter how bad it has looked.
For now, the Mets are prepared to extend plenty of leeway, which assistant general manager John Ricco noted “doesn’t last forever.” Nevertheless, they have yet to seriously consider a demotion to the minors.
“Right now, the best place to be for him and us is here,” Ricco reiterated Sunday in Milwaukee. “We’re still in the mode of ‘he’s going to play his way out of this.’ ”
Until now, Conforto, 23, had led a charmed life in the big leagues. He was promoted straight from Double-A to the Mets last summer and showed he deserved to be there. And t
he former first-round pick showed off his pedigree in April, when he burst from the gates hitting .365 with four homers and 18 RBIs and was a finalist for NL Player of the Month.
But what has followed has been a confidence-shattering funk. He hit .169 in May, his downward trajectory coming as injuries mounted and the lineup leaned on his bat even more.
He’s hitting .111 in June, and his move out of the pressure-packed third spot has done little to jog his production.
“It’s been frustrating for him,” manager Terry Collins said. “I think you can tell a lot. You watch the body language, you watch the face. It’s certainly a big test for him.”
‘A little bit surprising’
Denial proved easy at first for Conforto when the hits stopped falling and the temptation to chase pitches began to grow. He laid off strikes and swung at balls, precisely the opposite of what had brought success.
He had feasted on fastballs. Now he wasn’t seeing any.
“For a while, you tell yourself you’re fine,” said Conforto, whose average has tumbled to .233. “Everything’s good. You work your way out of it. Things are going to start turning around without looking at what’s going on.”
A week passed, then another, each one separating him further from the good times. He soon learned about the fuzzy line between feast and famine.
Said Conforto: “It’s tough to tell when maybe you’ve just had a couple of games when things aren’t working out or really there is something that is going on that’s going to create a prolonged period of struggle.”
By June 1, when Conforto hit rock bottom and the Mets lost in extra innings, his patience had been exhausted after one at-bat. He spent the rest of the game flailing, abandoning any semblance of discipline. For a hitter, it was tantamount to giving up.
“I do get frustrated during games,” Conforto said. “But usually, it’s not to the point where I lose my approach and lose the plan. That was a little bit surprising. It hadn’t happened to me for a long time.”
‘It happens to everybody’
A full day passed before Conforto could truly comprehend how far he had fallen off the grid. It took a frank conversation with his father, and then with Mets hitting coach Kevin Long, to confront an unflattering fact.
Conforto had been defeated by his own anger. And more importantly, he finally could admit it.
“You know it happens, so you might as well be truthful about it,” said Long, glad that Conforto had reached that conclusion on his own. “It happens to everybody, so why not just say it? It’s easier that way.”
Long believes Conforto will spend the rest of his career benefiting from the hard lessons that come out his slump. But for now, tough times remain.
In the two weeks that have passed since his 0-for-6, Conforto has shown only fleeting signs of warming up. Since hitting a game-tying homer on Wednesday against the Pirates, he is 0-for-11, all while dealing with a sore left wrist that he insists does not affect his swing.
As Conforto fights to regain his confidence, he must deal with another complication. He is 4-for-43 against lefties, which has done nothing to change Collins’ policy of benching him against southpaws.
“Maybe that’s hurt him,” Long said. “I think that’s maybe hurt him more than anything because you can’t continue to go out there and kind of fight through it.”
Long has raved about the mechanics of Conforto’s swing, a streamlined sequence of movements that he considers low-maintenance. He insists that the issues are strictly mental.
“I keep telling him I’m glad you’re doing this because I just bought more stock,” Long said. “Everybody sold on you. But this is when I buy, because I believe he’s that good and so does he. I think he knows that.”
Michael Conforto has hit the skids since he was a finalist for NL Player of the Month in April. His month-by-month numbers:
April May June
Games 21 24 11
HRs4 4 1
RBIs 18 6 5