Bethel Park American Legion teams completes turnaround
Good grief was about all the Bethel Park American Legion baseball team could say about the summer of 2012. For Post 760 played pretty much like the Peanuts’ gang and posted a 2-18 record.
However, 2013 penned a different script. Bethel Park knocked the socks off the competition. Post 760 won the Allegheny County district playoffs and qualified for the Region 6 Tournament. In the county tournament, Bethel Park blanked Elizabeth-Forward, 2-0, upset Peters Township, 5-2, and edged Upper St. Clair, 6-4.
“Not many people expected us to do well, especially after last season. Not many gave us a chance,” said BP manager Jerry Obiecunas. “They underestimated us.”
After starting the season with one win in their first four games, the Hawks certainly were overlooked by all but themselves. “Those were all close games,” Obiecunas explained. “We lost games we should have won. Bethel Park was beating Bethel Park. No one else.”
With a little work and additional experience, the club, which consisted mainly of players who had just completed their sophomore or junior years of high school, began to improve in a league that now featured wooden bats.
“Playing with wooden bats changes the game. Pitching and defense are the most important things,” said Obiecunas. “Our goal was improvement. We realized we needed some work, especially with our gloves and defense and communication. So we started working on fundamentals and a lot of defensive drills. We worked on our craft and got better. We went from last to best in one year.”
Bethel Park shot to the top because of commitment, desire and teamwork. According to Obiecunas, his players love the game, wanted to play and bought into the philosophy that no one single individual can take a team where it wants to be.
Additionally, Obiecunas said that 75 percent of the team had no other conflict with its allegiance to the club. In fact, he cited Tim Pauley as an example. The third baseman quit his part-time job at Dick’s Sporting Goods Store to play for the Legion team. He batted .365 with an on-base percentage over .500
“He was at the field every day taking batting practice or working on his glove. He wanted to get better,” Obiecunas said.”
“Tim was just one of our 15 guys who love the game and wanted to play. These guys love baseball. Not a single one of them played varsity,” he pointed out. “Some of them had played on JV last spring. This group of guys had been overlooked. They wanted to play. They worked hard and achieved their goals.”
The initial goal was get into the playoffs. Then Bethel Park won the district.
“We were very focused and it showed,” Obiecunas said. “We executed and scored runs. We got great pitching and clutch hitting. We were determined. Everything clicked on all cylinders.”
In the Region 6 playoffs, nothing clicked. Post 760 dropped an 8-2 decision to Ambridge and a 15-1 contest to Connellsville to end its season.
“Things did not go our way,” said Obiecunas. He took responsibility for the team’s showing in the nine-inning games, two frames longer than those during the regular season and district playoffs. “As a coaching staff, we were not prepared. As a team, we were not as prepared as we could have been. But, Lady Luck certainly didn’t smile upon us.”
Bailey Fertig, however, did shine. Against Ambridge, he hurled seven plus strong innings. The rising senior led the BP pitching staff along with Mike Gronsky.
Fertig posted a 5-3 record with a 3.46 ERA. He picked up the playoff win against Peters Township.
“Bailey is a work horse. He’d run through a brick wall for you. He’s a great player,” Obiecunas added. “He does what’s best for the team. He has a lot of heart.”
Gronsky, who also played third base, posted a 6-1 record with a 1.34 ERA. He tossed three no-hitters during the season. A control pitcher, he recorded 18 of 21 outs on ground balls in a game against Chartiers Valley this summer. BP’s clean-up hitter batted .328 with 23 RBI and one homer.
“Mike’s a leader,” Obiecunas said. “He was a timely hitter and a pitcher with great control. He finds ways to get people out. He felt secure and safe with the guys behind him that he relied on his defense to get the outs. Mike was like many players on our team. He stepped up. Plus, he has a lot of character.”
A rising senior and captain, Gronsky is also a talented musician, specializing in guitar. A talented student, he is interested in attending Indiana University or Ohio State.
In addition to Fertig and Gronsky, BP relied upon Dom Bertan, Sam Polen and Joe Cinello for pitching. Bertan was 2-1 with a 3.43 ERA. He recorded a big save against USC, when he came in with the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the sixth inning. A situational hurler, Polen is a southpaw with “good stuff” says Obiencus. At 6-1, Cinello sports a fastball clocked between 83-85 miles per hours. After his brief stint in the regional, an umpire told Obiecunas that his curve ball was the best he has seen in the district.
Behind the pitcher’s success was Louie Ridgeway. The catcher called every pitch in every game. He built a great relationship with his pitchers, says Obiecunas. Ridgeway batted .315 with five sacrifice bunts. The rising junior threw out 73 percent of would-be base thieves.
While Chris Steeb, who had a .853 slugging percentage, and shortstop Josh Gramm, who had a .955 fielding percentage and went 8-for-12 in the playoffs, are also rising juniors, Bethel Park benefited from the play of soon-to-be seniors including Derek Lesnak, Jake Svitek, Austin Carrozza, Dan Deleo and twin brothers Carmen and Luke Jasante.
Of the guy that Obiecunas says ‘nobody gave him a shot,’ Carozza provided a solid glove at second base for BP. Deleo swiped six bases and batted .347. Despite injuring his ankle, Svitek returned to 100 percent and turned in a .425 performance at the plate during the post-season.
While Carmen started all games but one at first base and batted .336 with 20 RBI, Luke maintained a .725 on-base percentage. BP’s lead-off hitter, Luke started in center field.
In left field was Lesnak, who as a sophomore captained the high school hockey team. Lesnak batted .400. He had two assists on putouts during the playoffs.
“Derek has so much heart and he knows what it takes to win. He knows what to do in stressful situations,” Obiecunas said. He cited how BP’s lead-off hitter took a hit by pitch to help the team win a game. “Derek gets on,” he said. “He finds a way, whether it’s by getting hit, walking or getting a base hit.”
This summer, Bethel Park found a way, too. As a result, despite the disappointing showing in the regional tournament, future expectations are high for Post 760.
“We won’t be so young and our main (players), if not all, will be back.” Obiecunas said. “This year really was about the experience. Even though we lost, we still had fun and felt like we really accomplished something. That was a cool feeling considering where we were and how we worked so hard to get to this point.”
“We were playing our best baseball by the end of the season. The team understood small-ball. Getting runners in scoring position, getting the clutch hits and finding a way to score them. That separates the good teams from the great team. We did not let too many games slip between our fingers.”