ABSECON - More than 25 Major League Baseball scouts packed the bleachers behind the backstop to watch Joe Gatto of St. Augustine Prep pitch against Holy Spirit on Thursday afternoon.
Gatto gave them plenty to watch. His fastball hit 94 mph on the radar gun in the first inning and 93 in the fifth inning. He struck out eight and allowed just two hits and one run.
But what made Gatto smile the most was his performance at the plate.
Gatto began a five-run rally in the sixth inning with a double to center field. The inning propelled the Hermits to a 5-1 win in a Cape-Atlantic League American Conference game.
St. Augustine (4-0) is No. 2 in The Press Elite 11. Dylan Tolbert and Ryan Piscitelli each knocked in two runs for the Hermits.
"That was a big hit for me," Gatto, a Hammonton resident, said of the leadoff double. "I've been struggling. I knew I had to come up with a hit. We needed runs."
St. Augustine and Spirit are rivals in every sport. Spirit (4-2) entered the game on a four-game winning streak. It's notable every time these schools play. The scouts behind home plate made the contest seem even more special.
"It's a great atmosphere, not only for me, but the whole team," Gatto said. "It gives them a spark and an enthusiasm to go out there and play better for themselves."
Holy Spirit pitcher Kyler Pikus matched Gatto early in the game. Spirit led 1-0 after four innings. Spartans Tyler Dowd hit a home run to left-center field in the bottom of the second inning to give the Spartans a 1-0 lead.
"Hats off to (Dowd)," Gatto said. "That was a beautiful hit by him. I had to shake that off."
The Hermits left runners on base in each of the first four innings.
Gatto began the rally in the sixth inning with a line-drive, ground-rule double over the head of the Spirit centerfielder. Gatto had popped up in his first two plate appearances - although the first pop up dropped in for a single in shallow right field.
"I was thinking I had to sit on the fastball," Gatto said. "I had been leaning out in front of it and popping up all day. I sat back on that one and gave it a pretty good drive."
Sean Carew followed with a double to left field to score Gatto and tie the game.
Three batters later, Tolbert came to the plate with the bases loaded. The Spartans intentionally walked the hitter in front of him. Tolbert had bounced to third and struck out in his first two at-bats. This time, he lined a two-run single to left field to give the Spartans a 3-1 lead.
"I was swinging around the ball and not making solid contact in the my first two at-bats," Tolbert said. "I hit a fastball in. I was ecstatic. I knew we needed those couple of runs."
The 6-foot-5, 215-pound Gatto threw five innings. He used his off-speed pitches to strike out five Spartans in his final two innings. Other than Dowd's home run, Spirit's only other scoring chance against Gatto came in the fifth inning. Spirit had runners at second and third with two outs. Gatto ended the inning by striking out a Spirit hitter looking with a fastball.
Once Gatto left the game so did the scouts. They missed Hermits sophomore Bill Chillari strike out three over the final two innings to preserve the lead.
Spirit roped off the bleachers behind home plate for the scouts to sit. They raised their radar guns with nearly every pitch Gatto threw.
"This was a different environment," Spirit coach Steve Normane said of the scouts. "Our kids realized something special was going on. But at the end of the day, it was a baseball game. We were facing somebody who has a good shot to go pro. We played a team that plays the game right. They have a heck of a pitcher, and he showed it."
Contact Michael McGarry:
St. Augustine Prep 000 005 0 – 5 8 1
Holy Spirit 010 000 0 – 13 1
2B- Piscitelli, Gatto, Carew SA. 3B- McCourt SA. HR- Dowd HS.
WP- Gatto 8k. LP- Pikus 2k
Records- St. Augustine 4-0; Holy Spirit 4-2