TOMS RIVER - There is a sports cliche that goes something like, "hitting a baseball is the most difficult thing to do in sports" and Toms River North senior Pat Marinaccio spent three years avoiding that very difficult thing, at least in a competitive setting.

This past March, he decided he wanted to try out baseball again after three straight seasons away from the game and in short order, Marinaccio earned a starting spot in the Mariners lineup doing precisely the thing that is supposed to be the hardest thing to do on the playing field from which he stepped away: Just a few games into the season, Marinaccio became the team's regular designated hitter.

Thursday night, in Toms River North's 2-0 Ocean County Tournament championship victory over rival Toms River South, the senior who spent the last three-and-a-half years honing his craft on the basketball court at the expense of whatever potential baseball career he might have had came through with the biggest hit of his team's season. Marinaccio's two-out, two-run single off of Toms River South ace Trevor Wagner in the bottom of the eighth broke a scoreless tie and was the difference in an otherwise pitching-and-defense dominated game.

"My friends talked me into it, my parents talked me into it and it was the best decision I've ever made," Marinaccio said of his decision to return to the diamond this spring.

Toms River North senior Pat Marinaccio drove in the game-winning runs Thursday night. (Photo by Matt Manley)

That decision was not a long-planned move back to the sport but rather an impulse decision following a disappointing ending to his final basketball season. The decision was so last-minute that Marinaccio did not even have time to round up the necessary equipment.

"Basketball ended on a Wednesday. We got knocked out of the state tournament," Marinaccio recalled. "I had one day off and on Thursday, I decided, 'I'm going to do this.' I didn't have a bat, I didn't have a glove, I didn't have anything. All my friends let me borrow their stuff."

"I never really saw him, but a bunch of the seniors relayed to me that he could really hit," Toms River North coach Andy Pagano said. "I guess they knew from travel or just messing around or whatever. I knew he was a good player when he was younger, but you don't know what to expect after that much time off."

While a lack of repetition - and equipment - might have worked against Marinaccio's comeback effort, two aspects of his athletic prowess made the difference Thursday night. First, he demonstrated a level of athletic instinct that helped him anticipate what to expect. During the eighth-inning showdown, Wagner advanced the count to 2-2 with a fourth straight fastball that Marinaccio swung over top of with an off-balanced swing.

Instead of dwelling on the pitch he just saw - the one that made him look overmatched - he cleared his head and recalled his previous at bats. Marinaccio recalled that Wagner had retired him with his breaking ball earlier and after four straight fastballs and one more pitch to potentially waste out of the strike zone, the count was ripe to change things up once again.

"I knew (the breaking ball) was coming, so I sat on it and I just poked it through into center," Marinaccio said. "In the previous at bat, he got me out with the curveball so I thought he'd go back to it.

On the fifth pitch of the at bat, Marinaccio stayed back long enough, met the ball with the barrel of his bat and guided it through the middle of the infield and into center field for the game-breaking hit.

"I was definitely rusty coming back," Marinaccio said. "I was horrible in the preseason - I probably hit about .150. But I always stayed around the game. I'm always watching baseball."

The athletic instinct has allowed Marinaccio to excel in his return to the diamond, but that return might not have been possible if he had a different last name. Marinaccio's older brother, Ron, was an All-Shore pitcher-slash-outfielder at Toms River North and led the Mariners to their last OCT title in 2013. Ron is enjoying his first full season as a red-shirt sophomore at Delaware after undergoing Tommy John Surgery and missing most of the previous two seasons.

"My brother plays at Delaware and I'm always watching him play," Marinaccio said. "He was a great player here, so hopefully I end up with a better batting average than he had his senior year. I definitely never lost touch with the sport."

A driving force of Toms River North's last OCT title in 2013, Ron Marinaccio's Mariner legacy opened Pagano to the idea of Pat making an impact despite his three-year layoff from the sport. After all, the younger Marinaccio was, in fact, a standout shortstop on the Toms River Little League team that reached the Little League World Series in 2010.

"When I heard he quit baseball after that Little League World Series run, I got on Ron a little bit," said Pagano, who was an assistant up until he was promoted to head coach upon the retirement of longtime skipper Ted Schelmay following the 2013 season. "I was like, 'Ronnie, what's the deal, here?' Ron was clueless about it too. Here's a kid with baseball in his blood who was a pretty good shortstop as a kid."

Upon arriving at Toms River North, however, Marinaccio decided to focus his athletic efforts on basketball. During his three-year varsity career as a bruising rebounder and versatile player on both ends, Marinaccio helped lead the Mariners to new heights on the court, as the team reached consecutive Shore Conference Tournament semifinals amid back-to-back Class A South division championships and 20-plus win seasons.

When his senior year of basketball ended, however, and Marinaccio's career on the court effectively came to and end, his competitive fire drew him back to an old sanctuary. Marinaccio was a spectator when his older brother helped lead the Mariners to their first OCT title in 11 years and for the first time in three years, he had enough of watching from behind the fence.

Although Thursday was Marinaccio's signature moment this season, his senior year won't go down as a one-hit wonder. After going 1-for-2 with a walk on Thursday night against one of the Shore's top pitchers - who had not allowed a hit in nine innings this season against Toms River North prior to the game - Marinaccio is now hitting .377 (which is, in fact, ahead of his brother's .343 senior-year clip) with three doubles and a solid 7-to-8 walk-to-strikeout ratio. One of his hits was a sharp, ground-ball single through the pull side against Barnegat left-hander Jason Groome, who is considered a consensus top-five player in the upcoming Major League Baseball Draft and a potential No. 1 overall pick.

"The key thing is he's coachable and he's hungry," Pagano said. "He's obviously a great athlete, but he wants to get batter and he is willing to listen to instruction and put the work in to improve himself and try to help the team. He brings a hunger to the game that you love to see."

If Marinaccio could acclimate himself to varsity baseball as quickly as he did this season, there is reason to believe he can continue to improve exponentially, which he hopes to have a chance to do, according to Pagano.

"Not many guys come out of Toms River and go to play basketball at the next level," Pagano said. "He pursued something he wanted to do for those years, and now he decided to give baseball another shot. It would have been nice to have him all four years. Just imagine what he could have done if he spent as much time on baseball as he did on basketball."

Whether or not there is a future in it for him or not, Marinaccio cemented himself as part of the storied past of Toms River North baseball on Thursday night. It might not have been the most conventional road for a player to take, however he got there, it was a moment he was born to make.