Frank Bodner was scouting for the Dodgers on April 16, 2009, a sunny spring afternoon on Suffolk County's South Shore, as Ward Melville lefthander Steven Matz opposed Patchogue-Medford righty Marcus Stroman in a high school baseball game for the ages.
Not only were the modest-sized bleachers at Patchogue-Medford High School packed, but every major league team was represented that day by members of the scouting network. Those baseball lifers, armed with radar guns, pitch-count clickers and notebooks, congregated behind home plate. Some stood, others sat in folding chairs they toted with them from their cars. None wanted to miss a single pitch.
"It was like watching a heavyweight fight between Ali and Frazier," Bodner said of the Suffolk League I game -- a 1-0 Ward Melville victory decided when a Patriots' runner hustled home from third as the Raiders' catcher threw out the batter at first on a third strike in the dirt.
"Someday we'll look back on this and realize what a big deal it was," Bodner recalled saying to a scout standing beside him.
Stroman, 24, was 4-0 for the Blue Jays with a 1.67 earned-run average after spending much of the 2015 season recovering from a spring training knee injury. He made his first major league appearance in 2014.
Matz, also 24, quickly became a fan favorite after the Mets promoted him on June 28, thrilling Citi Field fans in his debut by not only pitching five-hit ball into the eighth inning, but driving in four runs in a 3-for-3 day at the plate. He compiled a 4-0 record with a 2.27 ERA.
Clearly, these weren't ordinary high school kids. Matz, who struck out 12 and allowed one hit that day -- a fifth-inning single by Mike Johnson -- had accepted a scholarship to Coastal Carolina.
Stroman, who whiffed 14 and allowed three hits, was committed to Duke.
Both were clocked as high as 93 mph on the many radar guns that flashed frequently. They were still hitting 90 in the sixth inning, and both showed devastating breaking balls as well. Matz threw 111 pitches; Stroman 106.
"The atmosphere was electric and the pitching was electric. You can't re-create that," Ward Melville coach Lou Petrucci said. "It was an exciting time for Long Island baseball and a special time for our program. We were going for our first league title in 34 years, and Pat-Med is our biggest rival. I don't think something like that will happen again, at least not in my lifetime."
Neither pitcher seemed fazed or distracted by the flurry of activity directly behind the backstop after every pitch, as scouts raised and lowered radar guns in what seemed like a choreographed routine, checking their digital readings and writing down the results. The scouts could not dawdle between pitches.
"What I remember is that the game took like an hour and 46 minutes," said Ray Fagnant, a veteran Red Sox area scout. "That was remarkable. I've been a scout for 23 years and that's one of the games that really sticks out. A clean, crisp, well-pitched game. Both kids put their team on their back and really performed."
Patchogue-Medford coach Anthony Frascogna knew he was watching a duel of potential major leaguers.
"Nothing is a sure thing -- you saw that with both of them suffering injuries this year -- but as far as talent goes, you knew you were looking at major league stuff. I couldn't imagine seeing anything better," he said. "It was a wild scene. It was more of a showcase game than a regular-season game."
Who knows how many scoreless innings Matz and Stroman would have entertained the scouts with had Ward Melville not broken through in the top of the seventh?
Both pitchers were sharp and there were few well-hit balls when contact was made. "They battled inning after inning. Both threw hard; both had tremendous breaking balls that day," Bodner said. "They were elite players and we all knew it. They had the makeup, tenacity and competitive desire to make it at the next level."
While all the scouts that day believed Matz was big-league bound as a starting pitcher, Fagnanid there was less certainty about Stroman. "I'm willing to bet that the majority of people there thought Stroman would be an infielder in the big leagues," Fagnant said. "He got the most out of his stuff in high school, then went to college and really improved his arm strength and velocity."
Stroman elected to attend Duke for three years and was drafted in the first round by the Blue Jays in 2012. Matz eschewed college when his favorite team, the Mets, drafted him in the second round in 2009. Different paths, same final destination. "I'm not surprised. That's why we were there," Fagnant said. "Everyone had them on their draft lists."
And now, here they are, in their first MLB postseason, a long way from the Long Island ballfields of their youth and especially that diamond in Medford where their paths intersected in front of a rapt audience that foresaw their ascendancies into the galaxy of major league baseball.
"Those kind of days don't come around too often," Bodner said. "It was like a lunar eclipse."
The Matz-Stroman phenomenon has even eclipsed partisanship. "It's a source of pride for all of Long Island," Frascogna said. "I'm a Yankees fan but I'm kind of glad they lost because now I can root for the Blue Jays all the way. It would be great if the Mets win, too.
"A rematch would be really cool."
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