BRISTOL - Nick Conti of the Bristol Blues is the kind of player a coach dreams of, but on this day he really wanted to impress one in particular.
Jason Szafarski is the manager of the Brockton Rox, who were in town to face the Blues last week. Szafarski is also an assistant coach at Eckerd College, where he gets to see the way his middle infielder works all year.
On this day, however, Conti wasn’t in the middle. Instead, he was playing third base for the first time with Bristol. Not only did making the move allow Conti to show his versatility, but it let him spend half the game with his college coach and get his competitive juices going.
“It’s always great to beat him,” Conti said. “I always play well against him. It was the first time I played third base, so we were talking the whole game, which is fun.”
Beat him is exactly what Conti did, playing a part in every Bristol offensive push during a dramatic victory. He also showed he can play wherever he is asked in the infield, manning third base like a seasoned veteran.
“As of late, he’s been really hitting the ball well,” Blues manager Pat Riley said. “But more importantly, that might be overlooked, is he’s been playing third base, which is not his normal position, and he’s adjusted really well.”
Conti, who will be a sophomore in the fall and is from Florida, knew the move was coming, and got prepared, which is something he prides himself on doing every day wherever he’s playing.
“He’s been building it up and asking me how I felt about playing third,” Conti said of Riley. “I said whatever you need me to do to win is how I feel about it.”
That’s not to say there hasn’t been an adjustment period. Conti is used to playing in the middle, and had to get used to the new angles in the field and the sudden growth in distance between his arm and first base.
“It’s not the fielding, it’s the throw,” Conti said. “I’ve been working on it all season so I’d be ready if I had to jump in. It’s a little iffy at first, but if you can play the infield you can play anywhere in the infield, so I’m not worried about it.”
Riley knew he could trust Conti with making any transition.
“When you think of a ballplayer, he’s kind of the definition of that,” Riley said. “He works extremely hard. He’s ready to play every day. And he has a very high baseball IQ. I’m extremely happy that he’s here, and we’re very impressed with his progression.”
Offensively, Conti is just as tough-minded. He can make adjustments against hard-throwing pitchers, as he did against Brockton, by going the other way, or he can get around on a pitch when the chance presents itself. Most importantly, he will not give up on an at-bat. He has proven to be one of the team’s spark plugs through the sheer force of his will.
“I’ve been grinding out at-bats lately and hit some balls hard,” Conti said. “It always feels great to support the ball club.”
That’s all Conti ever wants to do, in whatever role it requires.
“I’m just a go-getter. I want to win,” Conti said. “Whatever it takes to win, that’s what it takes. If it’s bunt late, I’ll play third, the outfield, whatever. That’s how I go to the ballpark every day.”
The type of attitude Conti possesses is most important in the postseason, when the mental part of the game becomes as important as the physical aspects of baseball. The Blues are currently in a dogfight for one of the final playoffs spots in the FCBL in a year in which none of the league’s teams are out of contention with the season coming to an end. The cluster of contenders makes the end of the regular season feel like the playoffs, which means Conti’s presence could be big.
His confidence could also be crucial for the Blues.
“If we can hit with guys on we can be dangerous,” he said. “It’s all about who gets hot at the right time. If we can get in the playoffs, watch out.”
Bristol and Brockton already know to watch out for Conti. The rest of the league would be wise to heed his advice. With Conti around, beating the Blues will take as much effort as he brings.
Matt Straub can be reached at (860) 801-5203 or firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @mattattheherald
Staff Writer Paul Angilly contributed to this story