Michael Conforto not to blame for Mets' controversial ending Thursday

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John Harper
·5 min read
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Mets Michael Conforto sticks out elbow as he's hit by pitch
Mets Michael Conforto sticks out elbow as he's hit by pitch

Thank goodness Michael Conforto didn’t try to pretend he’d done something heroic, because I didn’t want to have to rip him as well as the home plate umpire for letting a game end in such ignominious fashion.

But then I would have been shocked if he did. Conforto is as classy as they come and so he admitted he wasn’t proud that he’d helped steal the Mets a win by sticking his elbow out over the plate, getting hit by a pitch with the bases loaded to force in the winning run in Thursday’s 3-2 win over the Marlins.

“It’s not the way I wanted to win the ballgame,” he said rather sheepishly.

And, yes, Conforto should have been called out. But, no, it doesn’t mean he’s any less classy because of his role in the mess. Let’s not forget that Derek Jeter once over-acted like he broke his wrist to get a hit-by-pitch call when replays showed the ball hit the knob of his bat.

The Marlins and their fans had a right to be outraged, but their beef should be with home plate umpire Ron Kulpa, who publicly admitted he blew the call.

“The guy was hit with a pitch in the strike zone,” Kulpa told a pool reporter after the game. “I should have called him out.”

And therein lies the biggest problem. What is instant replay for if not to overturn such obviously wrong-- and consequential -- calls? Kulpa did put the headset on to review the play before officially declaring the game over, but it was only to check to make sure that Conforto had indeed been hit on his elbow guard.

At that moment Kulpa surely realized he should have called Conforto out, but MLB rules don’t allow for him to change a judgment call based on replay review.

Well, that’s just silly. It was an obvious missed call. Kulpa had been in the process of calling strike three when he realized the ball nicked Conforto and allowed that to supersede his first instinct.

Plain and simple, replay should allow umpires the leeway to reverse a call if they know they’re wrong. I mean, what’s more ridiculous, calling a sliding runner out because he popped up a millimeter off the bag after beating the throw, as we see too often because of replay, or allowing a such an obvious mistake to go uncorrected?

So the Marlins got screwed, the Mets got lucky, and that should be the end of the story. The surprise for me was some of the reaction on social media to Conforto, even from some Mets fans, as if he’d taken a page from the Astros’ cheating handbook or something.

I think some of that is a reaction to Conforto’s poor start. He has left a boatload of runners on base in the first four games of the season, and let’s face it, he’d have been booed harshly by the pandemic-reduced crowd if Kulpa had indeed called strike three in that ninth inning.

Take my Baseball Night in New York colleague and WFAN radio host Sal Licata, for example. He and I were once among Conforto’s loudest supporters, predicting stardom almost from the moment we saw that sweet swing. And we looked smart last year when he hit .322 with a .972 OPS in the shortened season, looking like he’d become a much more complete hitter.

By Thursday, however, Sal had taken to calling him Konforto, with a K, on Twitter, and after the HBP was unrelenting in his criticism, essentially calling the play a “disgusting” and “embarrassing” act of cheating.

Luv ya Sal but, well, whoa there on a couple of counts.

It’s four games so it’s a wee bit early to turn on Conforto. For one thing, he hasn’t been the only culprit. As a team the Mets have failed miserably in the clutch so far, and the troubling part there is that hitting with runners in scoring position was a major problem last season.

It’s one of the reasons I thought they needed to add a proven clutch hitter like George Springer, but obviously that’s old news, and without a DH it would have caused a major roster crunch, especially considering that Brandon Nimmo is off to a blazing start in the leadoff spot.

No, my beef at the moment is with the way the Mets are handling Jeff McNeil, who merely saved the day with his ninth-inning, game-tying home run on Thursday. He’s too good to be hitting seventh in the lineup, and there’s no way he should have been sitting out the third game of the season in Philly on Wednesday.

But let’s get back to Conforto. I thought he explained the situation well after Thursday’s game, saying he was forced into “battle-mode” after falling behind 0-2 against Anthony Bass, “and I tend to lean over the plate when I get into battle-mode.”

He also basically said the scouting report indicated Bass was likely to throw a sinker or a splitter when ahead in the count, and after fouling off two pitches and taking a sinker low for a ball to make it 1-2, he was obviously fooled by a high slider and had a split-second reaction as a lot of hitters do in that situation when he realized he was going to strike out.

“I knew it was going to be controversial,” he said.

It wasn’t right, but it wasn’t some blatant form of cheating. If Kulpa had made the right call I’m pretty sure Conforto wouldn’t have complained even a little.

It’s still strange that Kulpa awarded Conforto the HBP, since he was in the act of calling the pitch a strike. Worse that that, however, is that when he realized he was wrong, only MLB’s illogical replay rules prevented him from correcting the call.