Joe Gatto knows just how much a professional baseball pitcher teeters on the line between success and failure.

The Los Angeles Angels minor league prospect and Hammonton resident faced an inning in the recently completed season where he had runners on first and second base with one out.

Gatto threw an inside fastball. The batter pulled it down the line.

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“It looked like it was about to be a home run,” he said. “But it went foul.”

On the next pitch, Gatto broke the hitter’s bat, forcing him to hit into a double-play groundball.

“I’ve gotten a lot more confidence from last year to this year,” Gatto said. “This year no matter what the situation was I felt like I was still in control of it, and I was able to get out of a lot of jams.”

Gatto re-established himself as an Angels prospect to watch in 2017 after a disappointing 2016 season.

“I think it was a complete 180 from last year,” he said. “Last year, I started off struggling and really didn’t get any better.”

Gatto was 8-9 with a 3.43 ERA this season. He struck out 101 batters in 128.1 innings. That is a marked improvement from 2016 when he was 3-8 with a 7.03 ERA.

He finished this season with the advanced Single-A Inland Empire 66ers in San Bernadino, California, after beginning the season with the low single-A Burlington Bees in Burlington, Iowa.

Like anybody who receives a promotion, Gatto is optimistic about the future.

“Anytime you get promoted it’s a good feeling,” he said. “Getting to high-A for me was good. It’s just another confidence boost.”

Gatto was a three-sport standout at St. Augustine. He quarterbacked the football team and played power forward in basketball, before concentrating solely on baseball as a senior.

The Angeles selected him in the second round of the 2014 draft. He was ranked as one of the Angels’ top prospects but he struggled in 2016 with the Bees. Gatto had control issues, walking 33 batters in 64 innings. Opponents batted .321 against him.

St. Augustine baseball coach Mike Bylone said Gatto has always had the mentality to deal with the struggles baseball often brings.

“Joe was always mature beyond his years,” Bylone said. “If you’re in any game long enough, you’re going to have your trying times. He’s put together mentally to handle any situation.”

Gatto didn’t pitch after June 24 in 2016. The Angels sent him to their minor league complex in Tempe, Arizona, to straighten himself out both mentally and physically.

“I was able to reset down there,” he said. “I came into spring training this year and just pieced everything together. I just went with what the organization wanted me to do, and I think it really worked out for me.”

Gatto’s improvement was evident right away. He made his first start on April 9 for the Bees, allowing one run in five innings.

He had back-to-back scoreless six-inning appearances for the 66ers in August. Gatto was consistent all season, allowing more than three runs in just five of his 27 starts.

With his 2017 performance, Gatto put himself back on a path that could lead to the big leagues. He still needs to improve his control, but his next step is a promotion to double-A.

“Double-A is a call away from the big leagues,” he said.

Gatto is back home in Hammonton for the offseason. He plans to work out to prepare for next season and also give some pitching lessons to South Jersey youngsters.

“I think I know what my plan is now moving forward,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to next year.”

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I've covered high school sports and variety of other events and teams - including the ShopRite LPGA Classic and the Phillies - since 1993.

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