As a slight drizzle began to fall, a quiet went over the once-loud pro-Poly Prep crowd. Sophomore sensation Andrew Zapata finally looked mortal after six near perfect innings. He gave up a double, walked a batter, hit another.
The bases were now loaded and Riverdale’s bench, quiet as it was the entire day, was at its feet, barking out encouragement to Armando Perez as he worked a 3-0 count. Poly Prep coach Matt Roventini smiled to himself.
“It’s fun to watch a kid who is out there grinding,” he said.
It didn’t last long.
Displaying the poise that has the entire Ivy Prep League raving about him, Zapata poured in three straight fastballs to cap his third shutout of the year and wrap up his two-hitter. Perez took the first two and swung through the third, Zapata pumped his fist and the Blue Devils had first place all to themselves after their 4-0 blanking of Riverdale in Bay Ridge on Friday, April 29.
“Out of the whole game, that’s the part that excited me the most,” he said after striking out a season-high 10. “Up to that point, I was really cruising. When things aren’t going your way – I’ve said this before – you gotta find a way to overcome it.”
Little hasn’t gone right over the season’s first month for Zapata.
With shutouts of Catholic league power Xaverian, Berkeley Carroll and now Riverdale, he has a 4-0 record and has allowed just three runs in 32-1/3 innings pitched. He was brilliant against Riverdale and its high-powered lineup, retiring the first 13 batters he faced. Perez ended the perfect game with a sharp single to center, but was quickly erased trying to steal by catcher Marcus Hernandez, who drove in a run with single. Freshman Morgan Grey added a two-run single in first.
Poly Prep has talked about Zapata’s makeup like a love-struck teenager describes their significant other: All the time, with no faults. For most of Friday afternoon, his poise was a distant second to his loose arm and variety of pitches.
He blew away the Falcons with high fastballs in the mid-to-upper 80s, got weak groundouts with his improving cut fastball and got swings and misses with his deceptive sinking changeup.
“At this point he can only beat himself,” Hernandez said of Zapata, who has already drawn interest from St. John’s, Boston College and Wake Forest. “That’s a pretty good lineup, one of the better lineups in the Ivy League.”
Zapata finally ran into trouble in the seventh. Cole Dreyfuss doubled to right to start the frame, Zapata plunked Nat Irving and walked Shane Gear on a 3-2 slider. He fell behind Perez 3-0, missing badly with ball three. At that point, he didn’t stalk around the mound, didn’t take a deep breath. He went to the same pattern between pitches, same delivery, just different results.
“The big moment doesn’t scare him; he lives for the big moment,” Roventini said. “It’s the whole ‘You gotta beat me’ theory. He knows he’s not easy to beat and he’s not afraid of the challenge. The kid loves to compete.”
Roventini joked the one problem with his sophomore is he’s making it impossible for Poly Prep to lurk underneath the radar. At the season’s outset that seemed possible with the graduation of stars J.J. Franco and Richie Carbone. But with the emergence of Zapata and second starter and third hitter Philip Maldari, another sophomore, the Blue Devils have once against become a target, particularly after Friday’s victory put them in familiar position atop the Ivy.
“It’s kind of fun to be the hunted,” Roventini said, smiling. “Everybody’s coming after us with their best and that’s great.”
With an ace like Zapata on his side, it may not matter.