By Joe Hofmann
It was July 14, not New Year’s Eve.
Diamond Nation, not Times Square.
A mid-summer night, not a mid-winter one.
Yet a wild celebration scene usually reserved for the night the ball drops had burst out and erupted on Field No. 7.
When New Jersey Saints lefty Tommy Zotollo finished off a Perfect Game in an 8-0 victory over the PA Shockers in the 16U Mid-Summer classic, you’d have thought the calendar had suddenly flipped from Dec. 31 to Jan. 1.
Bodies were flying around. The team dog-piled on Zotollo. Hugs, high-fives and bearhugs were plentiful.
All that was missing was Auld Lang Syne.
“Everybody was jumping on me,” the North Plainfield High School rising junior said. “Everybody was patting me on the back.”
Zotollo had all of his pitches working. Of the 45 pitches he threw, 35 were for strikes.
“He was really able to locate the fastball that day, both his two-seam and four-seam,” catcher Michael Bellistri said. “It made my job pretty easy.”
Zotollo had pitched a perfect game for North Plainfield Middle School against Bound Brook a few years ago, but this one was more special.
“More people saw this one because it was at Diamond Nation,” he said. “That made it pretty cool.”
Zotollo doesn’t want the perfecto to be the pinnacle of his career. He knows he is far from a finished product. He is not being recruited just yet but wants to pitch in college one day.
Zotollo’s fastball sits in the mid-70s. He knows he has to increase his velocity and refine his other pitches (slider, changeup).
He would like to attend a college that is strong in the science field. If pitching doesn’t work out, he’d like to work for NASA.
“I know I need to keep getting better,” he said. “I need to focus on hitting my spots and I need to get better at pitching when I’m behind in the count and increasing my velo.”
He has come a long way. Zotollo began playing when he was 9 years old and didn’t begin pitching until he was 11. Soon, he’d be pitching in Rec and for the travel team out of Green Brook. Then, it was on to the Green Brook Gators as a 12-year-old.
He showed all-around baseball potential at a young age by taking third place in a regional Hit-Pitch-Run competition in West Windsor when he was 10.
Zotollo has baseball in his blood. His dad, John, played outfield and shortstop collegiately at Tusculum (Tenn.) and the Dodgers invited him for a tryout.
On the night of July 14, everything was working for Zotollo – including the flawless defense by his Saints teammates.
“Tommy had a heckuva day,” Saints coach Sean Cruz said. “He pounded the strike zone. He didn’t get into any 3-0 counts. The boys behind him played great defense. They had a couple of hard-hit balls, but it really was smooth sailing. It was nice for him and a great day for everybody.”
Zotollo is wise enough to know he wasn’t alone on the mound that night. He had eight helpers surrounding him.
“We played great defense and I couldn’t have achieved this without my teammates behind me,” he said. “We were all perfect that game, not just me. My catcher (Bellistri) was awesome. All game I think I shook him off once. He knew exactly what I was trying to do out there.”
In addition, the left side of the Saints defense – shortstop Matthew Bober and third baseman Lorenzo Fuscoletti – came up with some nice defensive plays.
First baseman Danny Internoscia made a diving catch of a foul ball. Left fielder Jake Park made a great catch despite difficulty seeing the ball in the fog and lights. Right fielder Ben Reed had a nice catch on another fielding play that was tricky because of the foggy conditions.
Saints celebrate Tommy Zotollo’s perfect game.
Put it all together, and you had a wonderful night for everyone wearing a New Jersey Saints uniform.
“It was a cool experience,” Bellistri said. “It was the first perfect game I ever caught. It was really special.”
By the third inning, it dawned on Zotollo that something special was developing.
“They had no hits and I had no walks,” he said. “I think the whole game I had one three-ball count.”
The fifth inning included a nice play by Druvh Erria, who bobbled a grounder but recovered to make the throw to Internoscia at first for the second out.
“All my pitches were working and I was hitting all my spots,” Zotollo said. “I felt like I was ahead of the hitters the whole game and really keeping them off-balance.”
His teammates knew something big was beginning and they were all part of it.
“In the fourth inning we realized we had something special going,” said Bellistri, who catches for Scotch Plains High School. “We all knew what was going on, but no one said anything. During the fifth, everyone was nervous but we were able to finish the job.”
What do baseball players say to a pitcher working on a perfect game? Nothing! The Saints dugout remained silent as the tension began mounting.
As the fifth inning approached, you’d have thought Zotollo was carrying a deadly disease. No one said anything to him. Everyone kept their distance.
“They just left me alone to be by myself,” he said.
That all changed at game’s end, of course.