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Pitch and Catch: Zac Gallen and Nick Sciortino's Journey from Jersey to Cape Cod

by Matt Jasko, 07-09-2015

Pitch and Catch: Zac Gallen and Nick Sciortino's Journey from Jersey to Cape Cod

The experts said they had the best lineup in the Cape League. They were the #1-ranked summer team in the country. And the Orleans Firebirds thought they were about to turn on the jets.

Zac Gallen had been making them look foolish on perhaps the biggest regular season day of the year—Friday, July 3 at Veterans Field. In front of the biggest regular-season crowd of the summer, Orleans had managed only two first-inning hits. The Chatham fans who covered the grass beyond the outfield wall brimmed with as much delight as those who were lucky enough to jam into the bleachers.

But in the top of the fourth, the Orleans offense looked like they might have something cooking. The first two batters of the innings worked walks, and arguably the best amateur lineup on the planet had first and second with nobody out in a two-run game.


Zac Gallen pitching on July 3, 2015 

All of the sudden Gallen wasn’t getting the same calls that he got earlier. The pitches were in the same spots, but the strikes just weren’t going up on the scoreboard for him. It looked like the pitcher’s streak of 12 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run may come to an end, and Orleans could be the first team put a dent in his 0.00 ERA all summer.

Then Nick Sciortino came out from behind the plate.

Gallen and Sciortino looked at each other. They exchanged some words. Nodded. And they went back to their respective positions.

Gallen worked the next batter to 0-2. He took his battery mate’s sign and delivered a sharp 12-6 curveball the batter swung over. Sciortino squeezed the third strike shut.  

One out.

Two runners still on base for Orleans.

Gallen took a deep breath and looked into Sciortino. He worked the next batter into a corner at 1-2 and took his teammate’s sign before coming set. He delivered the cutter he learned on the Cape the year before and painted the inside corner. Sciortino squeezed the third strike shut.

Two outs.

Two runners still on base for Orleans.

Gallen wiped the sweat off his face with his Carolina-blue sleeves. He backed the next batter into an 0-2 hole and took his catcher’s sign. He blew a fastball by him and Sciortino squeezed the third strike shut

Three outs. Inning over. The best Orleans threat gone.

By the time it was all said and done, Gallen struck out five in a row en route to hanging eight Ks for the second consecutive outing.

The two measly first-inning hits stood to be the only hits the Firebirds took off Gallen, and the two walks in the top of the fourth were the only other baserunners they got with the Tar Heel on the mound. The right-hander picked up the win and extended his streak to 15 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run.

It was just another day of pitch and catch between Zac Gallen and Nick Sciortino.

****

Zac Gallen and Nick Sciortino speak another language. The words that come out of their mouths are English and the body language they use is standard, but yet their communication has much more meaning to it.

It’s a code only they understand.

Today, they are second-year teammates on the Chatham Anglers and conference rivals in the ACC— Zac a starting pitcher for the North Carolina Tar Heels, and Nick the starting catcher for the Boston College Eagles. Currently, Zac has not given up an earned run in his first three summer starts, and Nick leads all Cape League catchers in caught stealings, putouts, and assists.

But their history dates back many years prior to the current day.


Nick Sciortino with teammates on July 8, 2015 

Their paths first crossed at 11 years old when they got word that the Tristate Arsenal Baseball Academy in New Jersey was going to start an 11u team. By that point, Arsenal had already established itself as a powerhouse in age group baseball but had never been open to Little League-aged players. The opportunity was something that neither of them wanted to miss.

For the first of many times they would dream about suiting up in a blue uniform with a capital “A” imprinted on the cap. Perhaps, it was a bit of foreshadowing of the blue uniforms and capital “A” they would wear nearly a decade later in the Cape Cod League.

But that was far off in the future. At 11 years old, the only "A" they knew stood for Arsenal.

****

If you were at the first 11-year old practice Tristate Arsenal ever held, you would’ve seen two boys in that initial crop who would stay in the system all the way through the conclusion of their high school careers.

One of them was Nick Sciortino. His immediate family consisted of parents, Bonnie and Steven Sr., and siblings, Steve and Nina. At 11 years old, he towered above the other kids around him. Whatever sport he played, he brought a competitive fire to it that extended beyond what others usually exhibited. Nick’s teachers described him treating the grade-school playground like an arena and recess as if it was the NBA.

The other young player from the original group who would go all the way through was Zac Gallen. His parents were Jim (who would coach Arsenal, but always a different age group than Zac played) and Stacey, and his brother was Jay. When Steven Sr., dropped Nick off for the first practice, he remembered Zac wearing a North Carolina jacket. The Michael Jordan fan who would go on to wear #23 on the baseball field at Chapel Hill already possessed an incredible understanding of the game.

At a younger age, Zac had been fascinated with umpires and catchers. One game when he was playing catcher at eight years old, Zac watched a runner cross the plate without touching it. He proceeded to tell the umpire, get the ball, and tag the runner. The umpire then made the proper out call.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Jim. “At eight years old he was watching the plate. He got that from his older brother.”


Though he is now five inches shorter than Zac, Nick towered over him during childhood. 

Though they lived their first 11 years separately from each other, the similarities that already existed between them were striking.

Both boys grew up in New Jersey households that loved baseball. Both of their older brothers went on to play college ball, and both fathers taught their sons about the game.

Ask either mother about her youngest son as a child, and you’ll get the same answer:

“He always had a ball in his hand.”

Both were immensely talented. Nick’s swing launched balls beyond outfielders, and Zac’s swing once prompted Jay’s high school coach to point Zac out to the team while he was hitting soft toss into a fence at five years old.

Nick always played with an older age group, no matter what age he was. Zac was the first player in his town to ever play up, and at nine years old he pitched his Little League team to an improbable championship in the title game against a lineup of primarily 12 year-olds.

And both were about ready to commit to baseball. Zac would constantly ask his father, who coached him as a child, if they could go to the baseball field they lived across the street from to play “3-0.” In the game, the count started at 3-0 and Zac had to throw three straight strikes. He did pushups if he missed, which was not often.

Nick was equally ready. When he found out there was a possibility of playing for Arsenal, the only thing Bonnie can remember him saying is: “Are we going? Are we going? Are we going?”

****

Nick and Zac both had strong arms and could pitch well for their age, but they came into their first season unsure of where the coaches would play them on days they weren't on the hill.

The coaches thought Nick looked like a catcher, so “big Nicky Sciortino” suited up and went behind the plate to catch on days he wasn't on the mound during his 11-year-old year.

When Zac wasn’t pitching, he would take his quick, smaller frame to shortstop. There he earned the nickname “Nesquik” because he was quick like the Nesquik bunny.


Zac and Nick after winning an 11 u tournament in Maryland. 

 A handful of times, Zac pitched with Nick behind the plate—a great foreshadowing of things to come.

“11 year-old year was cool because we were going to tournaments and everything, but it was more just feeling things out,” said Zac. “By the time we were 12—tournaments started being more like business trips. We had fun, but we were definitely there to win.”

And with the added dynamic on winning becoming increasingly important, more serious decisions about where players fit in the Arsenal lineup needed to be made. Ultimately, it was decided that Nick’s current skillset made him the best-suited shortstop on the team. He would not go back to catching until college coaches encouraged him to use his arm behind the plate years later. The catcher who stepped into Nick’s vacancy was Matt Thaiss, who won a collegiate national championship with the University of Virginia a few weeks ago.

Moving Nick to short pushed Zac to the other side of the infield at second base on days when he did not pitch. The two kids who pitched and catcher together were now a double-play tag team and made up one of the strongest middle infields in the country.

With the rejuvenated lineup, Arsenal put together a season to remember.

“That year was crazy,” said Nick. “We just never got out. I remember a game we batted around three times in an inning. Every kid in our lineup except one hit a homerun.”

The team put together a record of 59-0. Zac did not lose a regular-season game on the mound, and Arsenal ended a 160-game win streak that an opposing team had put together over a three-year period.

They won their Super-NIT tournament, winning a trophy the Gallens had to transport back because it was too big to fit in the coach’s car. At the seasons’ end, they earned trip to Florida for the Elite 32— the tournament in which the best 32 youth teams played against each other to determine a champion.

That’s where their first wakeup call happened.

After going 59-0, they went 0-4 in Florida. It hurt in the moment, but they came back to New Jersey, more experienced and prepared for the future.

“That really showed them what was out there,” said Jim. “They saw there were kids who threw harder than they had ever seen and were bigger than they had ever seen. It made them realize how much work they still had to do. But it didn’t really get them down too much—it made them resolved to get better.”

****

The fields Zac and Nick played on weren’t always fancy or built-up. In fact, some of the most memorable games of their youth were played on a field that was barely a field at all—Nick’s back yard.

Some would refer to it as a field of dreams, but Nick recalls that it was more analogous to a field in a different movie.

“We use to set up bases and stuff to play wiffle ball any time there was a big group of people over,” said Nick. “We had a really big back yard. And it was kind of like the Sandlot because there was this crazy dog that lived on the other side of the fence.”

If anybody hit a home run into that yard, the kids knew they were going to need to wait for the dog to be brought inside before they could retrieve a partially-gnawed plastic ball.

Zac’s and Nick’s parents recall them playing back there for hours, and it was one of the only things they wanted to do when they weren’t at practice.

“I tried to introduce them to some other games that I played growing up like stick-ball,” said Jim. “But the only game they were every really interested in playing was wiffle ball.”

It was what they did for leisure, and it was analogous to what baseball had become for them. When they weren’t in school or doing homework, they were practicing. And when they weren’t practicing, they wanted to play the closest version of baseball that was possible in a backyard.

The act of throwing a fast ball and swinging a bat was already becoming more than a game for them—it was an escape. Something they could turn to when all else failed.

At the time, the backyard wiffle ball field was not very different from the typical backyard field. It was filled with a bunch of kids who dreamed about playing college baseball, and they were undoubtedly, at least at some level, imagining what it would be like to hit and pitch at the college level while playing those backyard games. The only thing that would ultimately differentiate Nick’s backyard field from most was the fact that the dreams of many who played on that field ultimately would come to fruition—they would play college baseball. But that was still an unknown somewhere in the future.

****

When Zac and Nick came into their 14-year-old season they brought with them a long list of triumphs and defeats from the previous years. They also had by now grown an unconditional love of the game they cultivated out of playing on actual and backyard fields alike.

Their 12-year-old year had taught them many things about baseball. It taught them the incredible feeling of winning hard-fought games, the level of competition that was out there, and the dedication needed to reach the game’s highest levels.

But they would learn something new when they were 14.


Zac’s first summer start of 2015. 

They continued to rise in the ranks, traveling to play in New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Florida by that point.

“I think some of the best memories they had off the field came while they were traveling at the different tournaments,” said Stacey. “They would all get together a have a good time playing ping-pong or something like that. It gave them a chance to relax and enjoy time with each other before going out and competing.”

Of course, they were ultimately at every tournament with the intention of competing. Their 14u AAU National Championship was no different.

They faced another two-year Angler three times in that tournament—the now LSU outfielder Jake Fraley. They played in pool play, in the semis, and in the finals.

All three times Zac and Nick came out on top, and when it was all said and done, they were national champions.

 “That was one of my favorite moments of them growing up,” said Steven Sr. “I was so happy for them to have put in that work and accomplished that.”

In many ways, the championship came at the most ideal time for them. They were old enough to understand its significance and appreciate the work required to reach that goal, but at the same time they were still young enough that they did not have to worry about life-altering college decisions. The perfect timing allowed them to truly enjoy the work they put in and focus on the moment without external worries.

They had won many tournaments before, but now they proved once and for all that they could beat anyone in the country on any given day.

The confidence they took from that win propelled them into the thick of high school baseball with an ever-growing awareness that they could reach their high ceilings in the sport if they worked for it.

****

As high school baseball progressed and Zac and Nick became more concerned with college, their friendship could have faded. But if anything, just the opposite happened.

Zac and Nick went to different high schools, but that didn’t stop them from going to the same high school games.

“I remember turning around at Zac’s high school baseball games and seeing Nick there a lot of times,” said Stacey. “He always had that smile. It was kind of mischievous—not that he was doing anything wrong, because he wasn’t. He just always had that sort of twinkle in his eye.”

Zac would likewise be at Nick’s games whenever he wasn’t playing, and both Zac’s and Nick’s parents, to this day, will continue to watch the other boy’s games even if their own son has nothing to do with them.

By that point the Hit Doctor, the facility that Arsenal was based out of, moved even closer to their houses. A 10-minute drive was now a 5-minute drive, and they continued to take advantage of its location. Nick would catch Zac’s bullpens even though Nick was still a shortstop at this point, and both would work on all mechanical aspects of the game with the coaching staff there. All of the parents would credit that coaching staff as a major factor to helping Zac and Nick to reach the level they did.

As the recruiting process fired-up, both became increasingly aware that their dream was within grasp.

****

When Boston College gave Nick the call, he already knew that’s where he wanted to go.

“I just knew that it was the right place for me,” said Nick. “I was attracted to everything about the baseball program, and I really liked the school as a whole.”


Nick catching Zac in 2014. 

His parents were likewise thrilled with the opportunity.

“We were really excited for Nick to have that chance,” said Steven Sr. “Not only was it a great baseball school, but it had great academics as well.”

Around the same time that Nick was ready to verbalize his intentions to go to Boston College, one tournament brought Arsenal to the University of North Carolina. The days lined up so Zac could pitch there.

 By this point Zac’s coach had described having him pitching on the mound as being “like a video game,” because he would executed whatever pitch was called in the exact location it needed to go. But Zac still didn’t have an offer from Carolina yet.

Despite the lingering ambiguity about regarding if he would or would not get an offer from the Tar Heels, Zac went out and mowed down the opposition. Scouts started to pay attention, but the offer pool remained small.

Then when Arsenal went to play a tournament in Georgia, Zac really got hot.

Those in attendance described the area behind home plate going from a collection of six or seven scouts in the first inning to 60 or 70 by the second. One of them was Scott Jackson from the University of North Carolina.

As Jay cheered on the little brother who had once been a bat boy on his high school team, Jackson wandered towards him and inquired if Zac was in fact his little brother.

Jay responded that Jackson was “damn right” that Zac was his little brother. When Jackson gave Jay his card and asked if he thought Zac might want to come to Carolina, Jay slyly responded that he “wasn’t sure because a lot of other schools were talking to Zac.”

The Gallen family and Carolina coaching staff still look back at that moment and chuckle.

The white lie eventually proved true, however, when offers did pour in after Zac dominated in Georgia.

Jim had put all the North Carolina gear he had collected over the years away during the recruiting process so as to not influence Zac’s choice, but the outcome was no different. Zac looked closely at LSU and Oklahoma State, but in the end kid who told Nick that he was going to play for the Tar Heels at 11 years old was ready to commit to North Carolina.

****

The recruiting process officially ended with a day that Steven Sr. would describe as “One of the happiest days of his life.” The members of the Arsenal class of 2013 shared a special afternoon at the Hit Doctor.


Signing day with Mike Trout in attendance. 

On the Signing Day 2013, six Arsenal players signed their National Letters of Intent on the same day that Arsenal alumnus Mike Trout (now a four-time All Star and reigning American League MVP) came back to be honored.

“I was so happy. It felt like the day [Nick] was born,” said Steven Sr.  

When the ink tried and Mike Trout’s Arsenal jersey was retired, it was official. Nick was going to Boston College and Zac was going to North Carolina. Both were going to play baseball at the next level, and they were going to do it in the same conference—the ACC.

****

Nick and Zac had played on separate high school teams, but college was the first time they would be torn from their common denominator of Arsenal.

“It’s kind of strange watching them play against each other,” said Bonnie. “They had been on the same team for so long.”

The two have played against each other twice in their first two years of college. North Carolina won both meetings, with the more notable of the two coming this year.

It was Friday, April 24 at Carolina.  By this time, Zac had earned the role as the Tar Heels’ Friday-night ace in only his sophomore year, and Boston College found out why.


Zac pitching against Nick during the college season. 

The right-hander allowed only three hits in a complete game shutout against his in-conference opponents, lifting UNC to a 1-0 victory. After recording a hit against Carolina first time Zac pitched, Nick went 0-3 with two strikeouts against his childhood friend.

After the game, Bonnie had been expecting to take Nick out to dinner to catch up with just the Sciortino family. Then, no surprise, she got a text from Nick:

“It’s ok if Zac comes to dinner with us, right?”


 

Minutes after each emptied everything in the tank to beat the other, they two were right back together. The bond that they had formed through playing a game was far too strong to be tainted by the outcome of one.

****

Bonnie and Steven Sr. had watched Summer Catch on television a few years before Nick came to Chatham. They thought of Nick when they saw characters from Boston College in the movie, but they never thought he would actually be playing for Chatham.

Then, on a day in late July of 2014, Nick got a call. It was from the same Chatham team depicted in that movie. He was going to come up to catch the last few games of the year for Manager John Schiffner's squad.

Shortly after, Zac’s buddies in the Angler bullpen told him that there was a new player from Boston College coming up. When he found out it was “Scores,” an ear-to-ear smile broke out over his face.

Later that day, Zac initiated a game of 20 Questions with his mother via text message to see if she could guess who was coming up.

After a few basic questions about how Zac knew the new player and where he went to school, Stacey nailed it.

She had already been planning to come up to the Cape to celebrate Zac’s birthday with him in a few days, and now Nick would be there too.

Then the icing on the cake.

When Stacey originally planned the trip, she had no idea whether or not she would see Zac pitch. As the rotation shook out, it became apparent that her son would throw on that Friday night. And Nick would catch.


The lineup card the first night Zac caught Nick on the Cape. 

In a game that took them back to the times when they were 11 years old, Zac threw five innings of one-run ball against Bourne with Nick behind the plate. It was just like old times.

****

Counting that game, Zac has thrown 45 innings on Cape Cod and Nick has caught 126. Today, Zac’s 15 innings without giving up an earned run make him one of the best pitchers on the Cape. Similarly, Nick is one of the best catchers on the Cape, leading the way in caught stealings, putouts, and assists.

When you come to the ball park and see these two stand out among the best college players in the country, you’re not watching a solitary event; you’re watching the latest development in a process. You’re watching two kids who played with and against each other since grade school speak a language that only they understand.

It some ways, nothing has changed. Their families, in one way or another, will be watching and taking joy in the two childhood friends chasing their dream together.

And like they have hundreds of times before, Zac and Nick will put on a blue and white jersey and a hat with a capital “A” imprinted on it. The only thing they're concerned with on the field is helping each other and the team win, but they are aware that another level of the game may exist.

Only one thing is for sure. In the words of Stacey Gallen:

 

“They will be friends forever. There’s not a doubt in my mind.”




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