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Michael Conforto's return to form gives Mets some good news

Mets catcher Kevin Plawecki greets Mets leftfielder Michael

Mets catcher Kevin Plawecki greets Mets leftfielder Michael Conforto after he scores against the Braves at Citi Field on Saturday, Aug. 4, 2018. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

In chatting with Michael Conforto, you can never really tell if something is wrong or not. Still only 25, he’s displayed the cool demeanor of a much older, more experienced player since the day he arrived at Citi Field three years ago.

The numbers, however, don’t lie. And Conforto clearly wasn’t right this season, coming off surgery to repair a torn shoulder capsule, until roughly mid-July, or about the time hitting coach Pat Roessler referred to as the period he began “impacting the ball again.”

 It’s been a long wait. For Conforto, with the shoulder unavoidable in his thoughts, and for the Mets, who had to wonder, to some degree, if their bright, young star had been dimmed permanently by the significant operation.

Of all their setbacks this season, a diminished Conforto would be tough to stomach in yet another reboot of this franchise. But if what we’ve seen in the past three weeks is legit -- and the evidence suggests yes -- then Conforto becomes one less thing for the Mets to worry. A serious concern comes off the board.

 Since the All-Star break, Conforto is hitting .306 (19-for-62) with four doubles, three homers and a .936 OPS in those 17 games, even after going 0-for-4 in Tuesday night’s 6-1 loss to the Reds. It’s a relatively small sample size, but means more when you take into account that’s what Conforto is -- or at least shown himself to be in the past, when he’s right. He’s not the guy that was hitting .215 as recently as July 11. Not anymore.

“I think it’s a combination of things,” Conforto said Tuesday afternoon. “Feeling healthy, getting stronger, getting the reps that I missed during the offseason and in spring training. But we also tweaked some things at the plate.” 

The primary focus was to have Conforto stand more upright, “better posture,” as he explained, to shake the bad habit of peeking too far over the plate, especially against righthanded pitchers. Sounds easy enough, but both he and Roessler worked through so many other adjustments since the surgery that it took a while to stick.

 The upright stance, Roessler said, allows Conforto to use his hands more effectively, and they were “always his best tool.” Getting here, however, wasn’t a linear process. Conforto’s rehab may have been consistently ahead of schedule -- he beat the projected May 1 return by almost a month -- but he never forgot his doctor’s cautionary words.

“The surgeon told me it was going to take time,” Conforto said. “Even if I felt good, the strength, the muscle memory, could be a while longer.”

There were flashes of normalcy, and Conforto asserted that if he thought he couldn’t swing hard, or “as aggressively as he wanted to,” then he shouldn’t be out there. Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. The shoulder has held up. Instead, Conforto fought his way through that uncertainty, with results that paled in comparison to last year’s All-Star season, when he batted .279 with 27 homers and a .939 OPS in 109 games -- before the shoulder capsule ripped on that fateful cut.

 The Mets already were spiraling toward a 92-loss season, but to have Conforto collapse in pain, from an ordinary swing, was too cruel. An optimistic prognosis alleviated some of that pain, and Conforto has spent pretty much until now trying to get back to that Aug. 24 player -- with the next two months useful in making sure that restoration is real.

It needs to be, for the Mets’ sake. Yoenis Cespedes is likely out until the All-Star break because of his double-heel surgery, so that leaves Conforto holding it down in leftfield, where he’s now been full-time since moving over from center on June 27. Conforto didn’t see a connection between his offensive uptick and returning to his original corner position, but shedding the additional stress of center probably didn’t hurt.   

He’s had some tough luck, too. As Roessler pointed out, Conforto’s batting average on balls put in play (BAbip) this season was .288 -- a big drop from his .328 of a year ago. The four days during the All-Star break was a welcome breather after struggling through the first half to find answers. Just stepping away for a bit helped him push the reset button, and the numbers -- the same ones that haunted him before the break -- are now turning in his favor.

“There was no panic with him,” Roessler said. “He was just grinding through it.”

Not that you’d know. Until the numbers finally provided confirmation.

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