The players on the Ambridge-Baden American Legion baseball team have never had a season like this.
They grew up playing baseball together, first in the fifth grade as youth leaguers on the Ambridge-Baden-Economy teams and all through high school at Ambridge Area. The teams would sometimes reach the postseason but something always seemed to be missing.
The missing thing may have been the wooden bat.
With metal bats being banned this season throughout Pennsylvania American Legion baseball, teams have switched to wooden bats.
Some have struggled, some have adjusted and some teams, like Ambridge-Baden, have flourished.
"The wooden bats have kind of sparked us," pitcher Shawn Holman said. "Since Little League, we haven't had a season like this. It has been great, it is an unreal thing. In PONY league we would make the playoffs sometimes and in high school it has been rough but we started coming on in Legion."
After a 9-9 high school season at Ambridge, the Ambridge-Baden team is 13-2 in American Legion play.
"I couldn't be happier, we are winning and everything is going great," manager Steve Antolic Sr. said. "The biggest thing is I have kids who are coming and are committed -- that is a big part of summer baseball."
Pitching has been the strength of Ambridge-Baden.
The staff is anchored by Holman, the son of Shawn Holman, a 1982 Ambridge graduate who was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 14th round of the 1982 amateur draft and was later called up to the major leagues for a brief stint with the Detroit Tigers in 1989. The elder Holman is an assistant on the Ambridge-Baden team, coaching the pitchers.
Antolic Sr., a 1984 Ambridge graduate, also has a son who is a pitcher on the team, Steve Antolic Jr., a 2013 Ambridge graduate.
The other top arms on the pitching staff are Colton Gossett, Jamie Deane and Marshall Volosh. Gossett and Deane are 2013 Ambridge graduates while Volosh and Holman will be seniors next school year. Volosh is the lone left-handed pitcher on the staff and he is also the starting catcher when he's not pitching.
Holman is the hardest thrower on the team. He has been clocked at 86 miles per hour. He complements his fastball with a curveball. Gossett's fastball has been clocked in the 83-84 mph range and Antolic Jr. throws his around 82-83.
"Jamie Deane, he doesn't throw as hard, but he throws a lot of strikes and Marshall has come on lately. He has thrown the ball fairly well and he has a nice curveball," Antolic Sr. said. "The staff has been the strong part of this team. The big thing is they are not walking many."
Holman (0.70 ERA), Gossett (0.98 ERA) and Antolic Jr. (1.5 ERA) have the top three earned-run averages on the team. Gossett and Antolic Jr. are both 4-0 while Holman is 3-1.
"The pitching has been great," the younger Holman said. "We all have pretty good fastballs and the ability to throw strikes and we have a good defense behind us."
Holman's only loss may have been one of Ambridge-Baden's best games. Going up against Blackhawk ace pitcher Brendan McKay, the 2013 Pennsylvania and Post-Gazette High School Player of the Year, Ambridge-Baden managed to scratch an earned run across and tie the game 1-1 before ultimately losing, 2-1.
"It was a big matchup going up against him," Holman said. "It was a good experience. We want to see that pitching, we want to have that experience."
Offensively, Antolic Jr., Kody Nichi and Tim Estep have swung the most consistent bats in the lineup. Antolic Jr. plays second base when he doesn't pitch and he bats third. Estep starts in center field and bats second. Nichi and Estep are seniors at Ambridge. Estep hit a triple off McKay and came around to score a run to tie the game against Blackhawk.
The Beaver County regular-season was scheduled to wrap up Tuesday with playoffs beginning today. Eight of the 10 teams in the league make the playoffs that are best-of-three series.
Last season Ambridge-Baden lost two one-run games to River City in the first-round of the playoffs.