HYANNIS, Mass. -– In the very first at-bat of his first career varsity start for Barnstable High, Willie Nastasi did something that most high school baseball players can only dream about.
He stepped to the plate, dug in, took a big swing and sent a two-run shot over the right field fence at Attleboro High, propelling the Red Raiders to a 10-3 victory over the Bombardiers.
It was a surprising smash from the freshman catcher, who had been called up from the JV just a few days earlier. And it was an impressive one, which not only caught the attention of his coaches, his teammates and the opposing players, but a Chicago White Sox scout who happened to be at the park that day.
Three years later, Nastasi is still raising eyebrows, only now he does it with a ball in his hands instead of a bat.
The star senior righty, who signed with UConn last November, has been the ace of the Barnstable staff since converting from catcher to pitcher his junior year. Last spring, he was named co-pitcher of the year in the Old Colony League, and this season he's off to a strong 3-0 start with 28 strikeouts in 21 innings.
"Willie looked great behind the plate his freshman and sophomore years, but with his strength and his 6-foot-3 frame, he was destined to be a pitcher," said Barnstable coach Joe DeMartino. "After he put that one out against Attleboro, the White Sox scout came up to me and wanted to know all about him. I knew back then that Willie was going to eventually become a pitcher, but it goes to show just how much of a natural athlete he is."
He's also a cutthroat competitor.
By his own admission, Nastasi lives off his four-seam, two-seam and cut fastball, but he's also got a tricky circle change-up and sharp 12-6 curveball to boot. With a wide range of weaponry, he sees himself as the dealer and the house, and has the percentages on his side. All he has to do is use the cruel odds of the game to torment hitters.
"Every team I face I want to dominate," said Nastasi. "When I'm on the mound, I always have a good confident feeling. I know what I'm doing out there and I trust that my team has my back. I have the mindset that I'm the best on the field and I'm going to do whatever I can to win."
A pair of teams in the Atlantic Coast League can certainly attest to Nastasi's ironclad confidence.
In his season debut a few weeks ago, he took a no-hitter into the sixth inning against Falmouth and finished with four strikeouts in Barnstable's 8-4 win over the Clippers. He followed that with an 8 K, four-hit effort as the Red Raiders downed Dennis-Yarmouth, 5-3.
Nastasi's ability to throw good pitches, mix them up and hit his spots have been the keys to his success. But many times, he has batters beat long before the ball leaves his hand thanks to a deliberate delivery that's predicated on rhythm and tempo.
He begins his throwing motion holding the ball with both hands at his waist, then raises both arms high over his head (and a little behind it), kicks up his right leg, reaches back and fires away. It's almost as though he's pitching on a metronome.
"It's a little bit of funky, old-school motion yet he hides the ball real well," said DeMartino. "When the ball comes out of his hand, it sneaks up on you. He's throwing in the mid-80's, but the way he hides it, it looks like it's coming at you ever harder than that."
What's more, Nasasti's experience as a backstop has given him a distinct advantage on the bump. Said DeMartino, "He can read hitters, and he has a good feel of what pitches hitters are expecting and when to throw them. He's got a little more knowledge of the game than the average pitcher."
Nastasi's immense skill set was on display Tuesday when he struck out a career-high 16 batters in a complete-game, nine-inning victory to lead Barnstable (6-1) to a 3-1 victory over Taunton in the OCL opener for both teams.
Simply put, Nastasi was nasty.
He tied the Tigers in knots, allowing just three hits, three walks and one unearned run while throwing a career-high 155 pitches. It was even more amazing considering it had been 15 days since he pitched in a live game.
"This was one of Willie's more gutsy performances," said DeMartino. "He got behind in a lot of counts, but he battled back, and when he need a strike on a 3-2 count, he got it. We didn't have a hit after the fourth inning, so this was all Willie today. He obviously threw a lot of pitches, and had the game gone into extras we would have taken him out, but he put the team on his back and carried us."
Nastasi set the tone from the start, striking out the side in order in the first. He fanned four in the second inning after a batter reached on a passed ball, and he struck out the side in the fourth and the ninth.
"After that long layoff, I wondered how I was going to do, but as soon as I started throwing, my arm felt really good and loose, and I kind of knew it was going to be a good day," said Nastasi. "Nine innings is a lot to throw, but I knew I had it in me to finish the game. My arm felt great so I knew I could keep going."
His endurance aside, Nastasi also proved how well he fields his position. After Taunton capitalized on two Barnstable errors to plate a run in the fifth, the Tigers threatened for more with two runners on, but Nastasi knocked down a hard shot hit back to him and fired to first for the third out. In the seventh, he teamed up with first baseman D.J. Crook to record a rare 3-1 double play.
Barnstable got all the runs they would need in the third thanks to an RBI single by Dylan Morris, who stole second and scored on Mark Brodd's triple to deep center. The Red Raiders padded their lead in the eighth when Taunton botched a pick-off play.
Barnstable's 3-1 lead came in jeopardy in the ninth after Deitrich Wahl drew a two-out walk and Zach Grady reached on an error to bring the go-ahead run to the plate. But Nastasi showed tremendous poise and punched out Travis Ritchie to secure the win.
"My dad has been my main pitching coach all my life and he instilled in me that when you get on the mound, nothing else matters," said Nastasi. "I try to focus, relax, be nice and smooth with my mechanics and throw strikes. That's how you get people out."
Nastasi will bring that same approach with him when he suits up for UConn next year. He said his goals are to lead the Huskies to the College World Series, and they came awfully close last year, making it to the Super Regionals before falling to defending and eventual champion South Carolina.
Nastasi's other dream is to play in the Cape League. When he was in middle school, he was a bat boy for the Cotuit Kettleers, and his freshman and sophomore years, he was the team's bullpen catcher. His family has also hosted players for the past 13 years.
"Playing in the Cape League would be the Holy Grail, because Cape League baseball is as good as it gets," he said.
But for now, the main focus is leading the Red Raiders to the promised land.
"At the end of last year, all of the incoming seniors and myself talked about how we knew we were going to have a good team this year and how we're aiming for a state championship and nothing less," he said. "Every team talks about that, but we feel this is our best shot. We feel like we can do it."