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Giants' Conforto gets nerves out of way after 17-month absence

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The first appearance of the spring generally is not a big deal when you've played more than 750 games in the big leagues, or when you've spent your whole career under the spotlight in a city like New York, but Michael Conforto couldn't help but feel that Sunday was a milestone moment. 

Conforto missed all of the 2022 MLB season because of shoulder surgery but was the Giants' designated hitter Sunday, hitting leadoff in the first game this spring at Scottsdale Stadium. It was Conforto's first appearance in a game since Oct. 3, 2021, and San Francisco defeated the Cincinnati Reds 7-6. 

"I definitely had some nerves, some butterflies. After the first at-bat they went away, but it felt like a micro-debut again," Conforto said. "I'm sure I'll get those feelings again on Opening Day, but it was good to be back. It just felt great to be back out there."

The Giants had all three projected starting outfielders in the lineup Sunday, although not in the normal alignment. Conforto is finishing his shoulder rehab and will be a DH for the first two weeks of camp, but the Giants fully expect him to be ready to play left field by their opener. Mitch Haniger is set to start in right, but he got some reps in left on Sunday. Mike Yastrzemski started in center.

It will be a new look for the Giants in the outfield, and it's a group with a lot of potential. Haniger hit 39 homers in 2021 and Conforto has hit at least 27 in three of his last four 162-game seasons. Yastrzemski is coming off a disappointing year at the plate, but he was shifted 81 percent of the time and might benefit more than any other Giants hitter from the new rules

 

Conforto said he's impressed with the roster's depth and that he'll be equally comfortable in left or right. Haniger has much more experience in right, but is working to get up to speed in the other corner as well. 

"Mitch and I have played a lot in the corners. Those spots, they're very familiar to us," Conforto said. "I've played in both and we'll see how everything shakes out in positioning. If I'm right or left, it doesn't matter to me -- I've played plenty of both."

--- A year ago, Alex Cobb showed up in Giants camp with a bit more life on his fastball. This spring, another new addition might be benefiting from a winter spent working out at Driveline Baseball, a data-driven facility known for getting the most out of pitchers. 

Sean Manaea's fastball was 93-96 mph in his two innings of work. He was 88-90 mph early in camp last year, he said. 

"Velocity was awesome today," Manaea said. "The overall location of things and secondary pitches weren't the best, but for the first outing I'll definitely take it."

Manaea averaged 91.2 mph last season with the San Diego Padres and hit 96 mph just twice. While everyone feels their best at the start of the year, the Giants could have good reason to think this is somewhat sustainable. Cobb had increased velo last spring and his average fastball velocity ended up being 2.1 mph better in 2022 than in the prior season. 

"He's in good physical condition obviously," Kapler said of Manaea. "He's staying in his delivery. Having watched him with San Diego and Oakland, when he's in his delivery and he's healthy and he's had enough rest, he usually throws pretty hard. So, not surprising."

--- It seems that every game will bring a new realization about life with new rules. On Sunday, it was Conforto pointing out that you can usually take your time as a DH, but not with a pitch clock.

"Usually when I'm DH'ing it feels like forever before you come up to the plate," he said. "The game is moving so quickly. It's fast."

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--- Sean Hjelle struck out a pair and allowed just one hit in two relief innings. Afterward, he did something pretty rare: He made the 6-foot-5 Manaea look small. The two Seans are right next to each other in the clubhouse and Manaea joked that people can no longer call him Big Sean, because that's Hjelle. So, what's Manaea?

"I guess Regular Sean now," he joked.

 

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