Joe Gatto stepped to the mound on a chilly March 14 afternoon to pitch a preseason scrimmage against Wildwood Catholic High School.
"I was just thinking I'm having a catch in the backyard," Gatto said. "It's just me and the catcher."
And 21 guys behind the backstop, most of them with radar guns.
That's how many major-league scouts came to watch the St. Augustine Prep senior and Hammonton resident pitch that day.
Perfect Game, an independent scouting service, ranks Gatto the 47th best high school player in the country. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Gatto has committed to attend the University of North Carolina, but he could be selected in the Major League First Year Player Draft on June 5. All 30 MLB teams spoke with Gatto and his family during the winter.
St. Augustine coach Mike Bylone said scouts frequently call Bylone to find out when Gatto is pitching.
"It's a tremendous experience for Joe and for us," Bylone said. "I like talking to the scouts and picking their brain. For our school and our program, it's a tremendous honor to be in this position."
Gatto leads a St. Augustine pitching staff that should be one of South Jersey's best. St. Augustine senior Zach Warren was 6-1 with a 1.21 ERA last season. He is headed to Tulane University and drawn interested from major-league scouts. Sophomores Mike Vasturia and Billy Chillari are talented newcomers with plenty of potential.
"If any one of the four starts, I'm confident we can win," Bylone said.
Gatto throws two-seam and four-seam fastballs that measure 95 mph on the radar gun. He mixes in a changeup and curveball to keep hitters off balance.
"I'm going to throw my fastball until the hitter proves otherwise," Gatto said. "You work the fastball in and out of the zone until you notice (the hitters) speeding up their hands. Then you start adding in your off-speed pitches."
Gatto was 5-3 with a 2.35 ERA last season and was named a first-team Press All-Star as a utility player. In addition to his pitching, he played first base and batted .352 with 21 RBIs.
But he established himself as a major-league pitching prospect after a whirlwind 2013 summer.
He pitched in the Perfect Game All-American Classic at Petco Park in San Diego on Aug. 11 and the Under Armour All American Game at Wrigley Field in Chicago on Aug. 24. MLB Network televised both games. Current major-leaguer stars Freddie Freeman of the Atlanta Braves, Matt Harvey of the New York Mets and Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals previously played in the Perfect Game All-American Classic.
"This summer was an unbelievable experience," Gatto said of the two all-star games. "You're facing the best hitters. You have to work your game around that. You're with the top pitchers in the country, you learn how they approach things. What I learned is going to help me tremendously this season."
Gatto arrived at St. Augustine as a three-sport athlete. He started at quarterback for the football team as a freshman and sophomore. He gave up basketball after his junior season.
"I never thought I would go to college for baseball," Gatto said. "My mindset was, 'I'm playing varsity football,' and football was the route I was going to take."
But he quickly excelled at baseball and now he's poised for his final high school sports season. Gatto is scheduled to pitch as the Hermits open the season at home 4 p.m. Tuesday against Atlantic City.
Gatto's plan this season is to keep things as normal as possible. He tries to block out the scouts and focus on pitching, but he also uses them as motivation.
"I don't go out there with a big head or anything," he said, "but if they're here to see me, I want to show them my best stuff."
If the season goes as expected, Gatto will have a decision to make - turn professional or go to college.
"As of now, I'm signed to the University of North Carolina. That's where I'm going," Gatto said. "But the draft is June 5. I think it's a win-win situation and a good problem to have. If I perform at the level I think I can, I think things will turn out good for me."
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