With 6 2/3 innings in the books and the winning run 180 feet from home plate, Will Gambino shook his coach's hand, gave teammates a hug, and walked off the mound, hoping it wouldn't be his last time in a Paul VI uniform.
A few minutes later, a walk-off hit-by-pitch sent St. Augustine into the New Jersey Non-Public A semifinals May 29. And as the Hermits mobbed around first base, the words from Gambino's mouth were visible: "No way."
It was a surreal ending to a high school career that Gambino would describe precisely the same.
After signing with The Citadel, the 6-foot-2 righthander reopened his recruitment when the South Carolina college changed coaches last June, and the calls came fast and furious before Gambino ultimately committed to Kentucky. But with a fastball touching 92 mph and a breaking ball in the high 70s, Gambino drew the attention of more than just some of the top college programs – the big leagues, too, had their eyes squarely on the Eagles ace.
Now, after being selected by the Seattle Mariners in the 35th round of the 2018 MLB draft, Gambino has a decision to make.
"Coming into this year, I didn't have the expectation of the draft and for that to even be a factor," he said after the loss last week. "But as the season went down and there were more people at my games, it became more apparent as a possible option. … One thing I pride myself on is being able to block things out easily, so I'm just out there pitching another game, and people are there to watch."
After a rough first inning, it was evident why Gambino could become a big-league pitcher. Against a lineup with plenty of Division I-caliber bats, the ball didn't leave the infield from the start of the second inning until there were two outs in the fifth, with Gambino striking out three in the meantime.
And he can hit as well. Despite an off-game with a pair of strikeouts and just one hit – a single slapped the opposite way into right field – Gambino was Paul VI's cleanup hitter, leading the team with a .442 average, six homers, and 26 RBIs.
It's that all-around ability that has helped the 18-year-old make such a dramatic ascent in his last two high school seasons.
"His maturity is night and day from when he came to Paul VI," coach Brett Young said. "He listens to what we've had to say, and we've had conversations and stuff. He understands where we're coming from, that we're hard on him for a reason. He's bought into the maturity aspect of it and been able to handle his emotions on the field."
Although the industry consensus entering the draft was that Gambino has the talent of a top-round hurler, there are scouts who have acknowledged that he isn't even on their team's board. With Gambino not going until after the draft's 1000th selection, most teams likely believed that the New Jersey native needed to go play big-time college ball.
"I don't see him being a big, power-armed reliever, so it would probably be as a back-end starter – a guy that has a chance to throw three pitches for strikes, move the ball around, and get outs by pitching to contact," one American League scout said of Gambino's chances to make the majors.
With the chance to play for a power-conference program that has made the NCAA tournament in three of the last seven seasons, Gambino acknowledged prior to the draft that unless he were to receive an offer similar to that of a pick in Rounds 3-5, he probably won't turn pro.
The stocky hurler has the tools, however, to be successful at the next level — it's only a matter of time until he figures out where that will be.