To say Michael Conforto “wanted” Stephen Strasburg, as Mickey Callaway suggested before Thursday’s 8-2 Mets win at Nationals Park, could be a matter of interpretation. Conforto’s left shoulder may be surgically repaired, but his brain works just fine, and Strasburg happens to be one of the nastiest pitchers on the planet.
“I don’t know if it’s appealing,” Conforto said, laughing at the thought. “But as a competitor, you want to go against the best. And they don’t get any better than him.”
Did we mention that Conforto is seven months removed from surgery to repair a torn posterior capsule in that shoulder and initially wasn’t scheduled to return until May 1?
We’ve seen this movie before with the Mets. All-Star player gets hurt, rushes through rehab, comes back too early, then is lost for twice as long.
But from everything we’ve learned about Conforto, a smart kid with maturity beyond his 25 years, these cautionary tales didn’t seem necessary for him. He understood the risks — to his health, to his career — and figured to act accordingly.
But you never know for certain. When Strasburg delivered his first pitch of the game, it was a brisk 42 degrees, and the fastball sizzled past Conforto at 95 mph. Two pitches later, he returned to the dugout after swinging through a 97-mph heater, and it was entirely possible that this was going to be a reality-check afternoon.
“I was pretty fired up,” Conforto said.
With the needle pinned on his adrenaline levels, Strasburg probably could have rolled those first three pitches to the plate and the result would have been the same. But Conforto — with the help of hitting coach Pat Roessler — eventually calmed himself down, and by the fifth inning, after also grounding into a double play, he was more than ready for what Strasburg was dealing.
“I made a joke that his first two at-bats were his rehab,” Jay Bruce said.
Bruce’s analysis was spot on. In the fifth, Conforto ripped a 1-and-2 fastball, again clocked at 97, for a line drive that kicked off the flower bed that sits atop the leftfield wall. The ball fell back onto the grass, and at first glance, it was ruled a double. But after a video review, Conforto got to finish his trot around the bases, and his tiebreaking homer gave the Mets a 4-2 lead. It also provided a moment for Conforto to appreciate the road back.
“It was a great feeling,” he said. “You do kind of reflect a little bit on how long it’s been to do that. Hopefully there’s a lot more of them.”
This was Conforto’s seventh career home run against the Nationals, the second most to his nine against the Phillies, but no other homer has felt more important to him personally.
Conforto injured his shoulder last August on the most routine of baseball activities — a simple swing — and after his September surgery, it wasn’t crazy to wonder if he could regain the stroke that produced 27 homers in only 109 games during last year’s All-Star season.
To Conforto, however, doubt was never part of the equation. From the first days of his rehab, he was relentlessly positive but still carefully toed the company line when anyone brought up a timetable for his return. When he first showed up for spring training, the official date was May 1. But he quietly whittled away at those distant weeks, determined to beat what he considered to be conservative projections.
“I never really had May 1 in my mind,” Conforto said. “I wanted to see how quickly I could get ready.”
In Flushing, those tend to be famous last words. Epitaphs to lost seasons, or the prologue to the next medical update. But Conforto’s trajectory appears to be more optimistic. His demoralizing shoulder dislocation and capsule tear got tossed onto the Mount Everest-sized heap of Mets injuries last season, but he’s not following that sorry script now. When was the last time we could say a Met beat his projected return date by 26 days, then looked as good as new?
And that could be the most promising sign yet that this year will be different for the Mets, just as their lineup is ridiculously more dangerous with him in it. So much so that Yoenis Cespedes confidently predicted Conforto’s homer, the time and the landing spot.
“Because I know Michael,” Cespedes said.
That it was his first day back didn’t matter. To the Mets, nothing Conforto does is surprising.