After coming out of the bullpen last season, P.J. Conlon is back in its comfort zone.
The Columbia Fireflies left-hander has thrived in his return to the starting rotation during his first full season in the minor leagues. Conlon has been one of the top pitchers in the South Atlantic League for the first half and is one of four Fireflies players appearing in Tuesday’s league all-star game in Lexington, Ky.
"They were monitoring my innings last year and it has been cool to come out here and they kind of let me loose," Conlon said. "I kind of got went back to my mentality that I had at school (San Diego) and just brought it out here."
Conlon, who made 17 relief appearances for short-season Brooklyn last year, leads the SAL with eight wins and is second with a 1.84 ERA. He won seven straight decisions at one point and became the first Fireflies’ pitcher to be named SAL Pitcher of the Week for his effort against Hagerstown on June 4. The 22-year-old was the first minor league pitcher since 2005 to go 10 innings in a start in the no-decision against the Suns. He threw just 97 pitches, allowed just four hits and one earned run in getting the no-decision.
"He is very specific for what he wants to do in-game and prepares really well," Fireflies pitching coach Jonathan Hurst said. "He is a workhorse."
Hurst said Conlon pitches more like a guy that is 6-foot-6 rather than his 5-foot-10 frame. The biggest adjustment the two worked on during spring training was to make his delivery "less violent" because it was more geared toward coming out of the bullpen than going deep into games as a starter.
"We had to clean him up. Had to calm him down and gain a rhythm," Hurst said. "Once we calmed him down, you saw the smooth rhythm and that is what he has been doing."
Conlon credits some of his success this season with his increased use of his changeup, which he called his “project pitch” since his days in college at San Diego. The pitch, along with his ability to throw inside for strikes, has been the catalyst for his success.
"The changeup has made everything else better when I can throw that pitch for strikes and keep hitters guessing," Conlon said. "It works to my advantage when that pitch is on and it has been so far this season.”
If Conlon’s success continues, his days in Columbia might be numbered as he looks to move through the Mets’ minor leagues and became the first Irish-born player to make it to the major leagues since Joseph Cleary did with the Washington Senators in 1947. According to baseball reference.com, only 47 Irish-born players have played in the majors.
Conlon’s dad was born in Belfast and his mom was from Scotland. The two met in California in college and moved back to Ireland after college. P.J. was born in Northern Ireland and lived there until he was almost two years old before his parents moved back to California to avoid the turmoil and fighting in the country.
Conlon and his family made a trip when he was 16 years old and was able to visit his old home and hospital where he was born.
"I take a lot of pride in being from Ireland. I have a very strong Irish family," Conlon said. "Going back there was cool experience. It is so different than what I was used to growing up in California. It put a lot of things in perspective because it wasn’t a great area.
"It was the best decision for my family when they moved back to California. I have been very thankful to be given this opportunity to play professional baseball and be able to live out a childhood dream."
More about P.J. Conlon
Drafted: 13th round of the 2015 MLB Draft
2016 stats: 8-1, 1.84 ERA in 12 starts
Favorite Team: It was Angels, now it is the Mets
Most famous teammate he played with: Chicago Cubs’ Kris Bryant (In college at San Diego)
Favorite Player: Mike Trout
Favorite musicians: Sam Smith and Justin Bieber
Favorite gameday ritual when pitching: On my way to ballpark, I get an iced coffee from Dunkin Donuts and go to Chipotle
Favorite movie: "Lords of Dogtown"
What: South Atlantic All-Star Game
When: Tuesday, 7:05 p.m.
Where: Lexington, Ky.
Fireflies selected: Pitcher P.J. Conlon, 3B David Thompson, pitcher Alex Palsha, 2B Vinny Siena