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Juan Lagares’ strained oblique could open spot for Michael Conforto in centerfield

New York Mets' Michael Conforto hits a home

New York Mets' Michael Conforto hits a home run against the Atlanta Braves in the first inning of a spring training baseball game on Saturday, March 25, 2017, in Kissimmee, Fla. Credit: AP / John Raoux

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Juan Lagares sliced a pitch just outside the rightfield line, ran hard out of the batter’s box, then felt a tightening sensation in his left oblique muscle. It was a strain, a notoriously tricky injury that could linger long enough to jeopardize the backup centerfielder’s presence on Opening Day on April 3.

“Those things can be one of those injuries that don’t go away for a while,” Mets manager Terry Collins said Saturday after a 3-0 win over the Braves. “I’m very concerned. We’ll see how he is tomorrow.”

With that, Michael Conforto’s path to the big leagues suddenly appeared much clearer, with Collins planning to play him in centerfield to fill the Mets’ sudden shortage.

It’s uncertain how long Lagares will be down, but his absence leaves the Mets with only one healthy centerfielder, 36-year-old starter Curtis Granderson.

Brandon Nimmo has played center extensively in the minors, but a hamstring injury in the World Baseball Classic has been slow to heal, leaving his availability in doubt. Career infielder Jose Reyes has dabbled in center, and Collins left open that possibility.

“I’m going to talk to Jose because this is a chance where ‘hey, look, are we better off with him playing center and someone else at third?’ ” Collins said. “We don’t know. We’ll talk about that as a staff, but we haven’t gone there yet.”

Of course, there’s also a chance that they won’t go there at all, especially with Reyes slated to start at third base ahead of the injured David Wright.

That leaves Conforto, 24, who is trying to re-establish himself after a brutal season that cost him his spot in rightfield.

With Jay Bruce still here as part of a crowded outfield, Conforto appeared squeezed out, destined to begin the season at Triple-A Las Vegas.

In the minors, Conforto would play every day. Even now, he’d be a reserve. But Conforto’s limited experience in centerfield might keep him in the big leagues, which has long been his preference.

“I feel like going back [to the minors], it could have some benefits. Playing every day is big,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I think I need to figure it out in the big leagues and play against that level of pitching and those guys who can adjust and change at-bat to at-bat. I think that’s where I need to be in order to grow as much as I can as a player.”

Conforto went 2-for-3 Saturday with a walk and his third home run, a drive that wound up in the parking lot behind rightfield. He has a .346/.370/.635 slash line.

But it might be Conforto’s glove that sends him to the big leagues. Despite his experience in the corners, he was pressed into service as a centerfielder last season. As he shed pounds in the offseason, he kept the possibility in mind, focusing on speed and agility drills.

Conforto has played centerfield twice in Grapefruit League games. He’ll add to that count as Opening Day looms.

“I’ve seen enough to be comfortable,” Collins said. “I just think he needs to be out there to play for himself so that he feels comfortable.”

Lagares, a former Gold Glover, is easily the Mets’ best centerfielder. He endured a similar oblique injury to his right side in 2014, which cost him roughly three weeks. The current injury, he told Collins, did not feel as severe as the one a few years back.

Lagares said he had felt no issues with his oblique until his hard trip around the bases, all for a ball that landed just foul. When he felt it again on his next swing, a groundout to third base, he notified Collins in hopes of keeping the condition from getting worse.

“I’m frustrated, but it’s nothing you can control,” Lagares said. “I tried to do my job, run the bases hard. There’s nothing I can do about it, just do my job.”


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