BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP - Zach Warren reacted with surprise and determination when he heard the unexpected news that he would be St. Augustine Prep's starting pitcher against Hammonton on Wednesday.
The junior left-hander from Vineland made the most of the opportunity.
Warren struck out nine and allowed four hits in six innings as the Hermits beat the Blue Devils 3-2 in a matchup of undefeated Cape-Atlantic League American Confer-ence Division I teams. Barry Buchowksi hit a solo home run for St. Augustine.
"I got my mind focused and did the best I could to prepare for this game," Warren said.
The Hermits (4-0) feature one of the region's deepest pitching staffs. Warren is the least known of St. Augustine's top pitchers. Chris Oakley and Joe Gatto both have committed to attend North Carolina on scholarships. Oakley is a major-league prospect.
But St. Augustine coach Mike Bylone told Warren last week that he would make his season debut against Hammonton.
"I was pretty shocked when they told me," Warren said. "I just took it as a challenge. I took it as a big compliment that my coaches have enough confidence in me."
Oakley pitched Tuesday, getting the win in St. Augustine's 8-2 victory over Clearview Regional. Gatto will start today vs. Holy Spirit.
"We want to win every game we play," Bylone said. "We knew we had three games in a row. We know Hammonton is a good hitting team. We liked the (Warren) matchup. We're fortunate to have three guys we can roll out there, and we have confidence in each of them. Zach has been lights-out in scrimmages."
St. Augustine vs. Hammonton was one of the most anticipated games of the young season. St. Augustine is No. 1 in The Press Elite 11. Hammonton (4-1) is No. 10. Hammonton started pitcher Justin Smith, who was 10-1 last season.
"A challenge I put out to the kids is that we're playing a quality team (Wednesday)," Hammonton coach Gary Sarno said. "Our next level was to beat good teams. This was a good test, and I think our kids can see we can play with them."
Both Warren and Smith struggled early. The teams combined for eight hits and three runs in the first two innings.
Warren settled down, allowing just one hit and two baserunners in his final four innings. He throws in the high 80s but needs an effective breaking ball to get hitters out.
"Usually, I'm able to come out and locate my fastball," Warren said. "I didn't have that even starting in the bullpen. Once I got that under control, it was easier to work my off-speed pitches. It was easier to hit my spots and get people out."
Meanwhile, Smith pitched in and out of constant trouble.
He gave up 10 hits but only three runs. St. Augustine left runners at third base in each of the first four innings. Smith ended two of those innings with strikeouts.
"There were a couple of times they could have blown it open," Sarno said, "but Justin made some quality pitches."
St. Augustine took a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the fifth inning when Buchowski lined a fastball over the left-field fence for a home run.
"I didn't think the ball was out," Buchowski said. "I thought it was going to hit the fence, but then I heard people cheering."
The Hermits have talented pitchers not only in the starting rotation but also in the bullpen. Reliever Mike Elfreth pitched a scoreless seventh inning to preserve the win.
As for Warren, he says he doesn't feel overshadowed by Oakley and Gatto. With the way he pitched Wednesday, there is no reason why he should. Rutgers University is among the colleges recruiting Warren.
"We're all one team," Warren said. "That's the most important thing. You have to go out there with a one-team mindset (and) not be three individual pitchers."
Contact Michael McGarry:
Hammonton 010 001 0-2 4 2
St. Augustine 110 010 0-3 10 1
2B-Cruz H. Elfreth, Carew SA. HR-Buchowski SA.
WP-Warren (9ks) LP-Smith (4ks) S-Elfreth (0ks).
Records-Hammonton 4-1; St. Augustine 4-0.