One number changed Chris Oakley's baseball prospects.
The St. Augustine Prep senior attended a showcase event in Fort Myers, Fla., the summer after his sophomore season.
"I had no expectations," Oakley said. "I was just going out there to do my best."
Scouts timed his pitches with a radar gun. Oakley threw his fastball 90 mph.
"I didn't believe it," Oakley said.
That 90 mph number instantly made the Egg Harbor Township resident a college and major-league prospect. He has committed to attend North Carolina but could get drafted by a professional team in June.
Oakley is now the leader of a St. Augustine pitching staff that could be one of the best in the state. The Hermits, who will open the season at 4 p.m. Tuesday at Atlantic City, are expected to contend for South Jersey and state Non-Public A titles.
The 6-foot-8 Oakley is joined on the staff by a pair of juniors - 6-5 right-hander Joe Gatto of Hammonton and 6-4 left-hander Zach Warren of Vineland. Gatto, like Oakley, plans to attend North Carolina. He verbally committed to the school in the fall.
All three have a formidable presence on the mound. They resemble the frontline of a college basketball team. They're so tall that they appear to release the ball a few feet from home plate, giving batters less time to see their pitches.
"They cut down that 60 feet, 6 inches (from the pitching mound to home plate) so quickly," St. Augustine catcher Barry Buchowski said. "It's the intimidation factor."
Oakley and Gatto are both power pitchers. Oakley now throws 95 mph. Gatto throws in the low 90s. Warren throws in the mid- to high-80s but gives hitters a different look because he is left-handed. Gatto and Oakley both throw curveballs. Warren has a slider.
"They have no fear," Buchowski said. "They're going to come out and throw the ball by you."
The three often talk pitching.
"We're all hard-throwing pitchers," Oakley said. "The best advice we can give each other is to keep the ball down, keep the ball down."
The three also take the pressure of each other.
"It's awesome knowing that when you're on the mound someone has your back," Gatto said. "I feel like all our pitchers are capable of getting the job done. There's not that one guy that everybody is going to focus on."
Much of the attention will be on Oakley this season because he's a senior and a major-league prospect. He pitched in several high-profile showcase events all over the country last summer.
Oakley most likely will face a decision in June - whether to go to North Carolina or sign a professional contract. A few mock drafts have Oakley being selected in the first three rounds.
"It's a privilege," Oakley said. "Not many kids have the opportunity I have. I treat it as a blessing and try to take advantage of it every day. The only thing I can do is let the season play out."
There already is speculation that Gatto could get drafted in 2014 after his senior season. St. Augustine coach Mike Bylone joked that he cringes when local reporters show up at games, and this preseason he has had to contend with as many as 25 scouts at a St. Augustine scrimmage.
"We know there's going to be scouts," Gatto said. "We try not to focus on that. We try to focus on the little things that will help us win."
St. Augustine won a state title in 2011. The Hermits finished 19-10 and lost in the South Jersey final to Gloucester Catholic last season.
As talented as they are, the Hermits pitchers have plenty to prove.
None of them has ever been a No. 1 starter in high school.
Gatto finished 2-2 as a sophomore in 2012 but was better known as a power-hitting first baseman. Warren was 2-0 with a 3.40 ERA last season.
Oakley finished 2-3 last season but did win one of the Hermits' biggest games. He struck out 10 and allowed just two hits as St. Augustine defeated Christian Brothers Academy 8-1 in the S.J. Non-Public A semifinals.
"Our team has a chance to do something very special this season," Oakley said. "I just want to do everything I can to help my team win."
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