As strange as it sounds, Anthony Aliotti had never before handled a wood bat.
Well, perhaps once.
"Maybe just messing around in the backyard," Aliotti cracked.
With his first summer in the Alaska Baseball League fast approaching, where wood bats aren't just the norm, they're mandatory, the Peninsula Oilers first baseman had to first get his hands on a piece of lumber after swinging aluminum his entire life.
"I had to just kind of look around. I asked a couple friends how do I even get a wood bat and what kind to get and all that," he said with a laugh. "So, it was a challenge to get that. And about a week or two weeks before I came up here, I started swinging with it, taking some batting practice back at school and got a pretty decent feel for it."
His transition has gone smoother than expected.
In fact, some may even say it's been perfect.
Having started every game this summer, Aliotti is one of the primary reasons, besides the incredible pitching, that the Oilers (12-4) have jumped out to such a hot start, as he leads the team in batting average (.345), on-base percentage (.478), hits (19), RBIs (16) and even walks (12).
"Put it this way, he's been a pleasant surprise," said Oilers manager Tom Myers, who's University of California Santa Barbara team played three games against Aliotti's Saint Mary's College squad this past season. "I saw him and I thought with a wood bat he might have some struggles, but he's proven that he can handle velocity as well as guys who mix their pitches, and that's why he's hitting as well as he is."
Myers isn't the only one who's surprised by the southpaw's early success at the plate.
"Actually, I was," Aliotti admitted. "Coming in with wood bats, I didn't know what to expect. I've never had to swing wood before. You hit a ball and you'd be like, 'Oh, I struck that pretty well and it doesn't go anywhere.'
"Getting used to that and getting used to just swinging wood itself is a challenge. But I think we're all coming around good."
With the sport running in the family, his dad having played in high school and all set to play baseball and football at Boise State before the school dropped the baseball program, Aliotti attended California's De La Salle High School, where he stepped onto the diamond all four years while finding time for two seasons of basketball.
Playing at the highly competitive institution where football rules the universe, he ventured onto Saint Mary's, about 30 minutes from his hometown of Pittsburg, Calif., and started every game in becoming the first freshman in Saint Mary's history to be named to three different Freshman All-America Teams.
His .320 average, 37 RBIs and .438 on-base percentage garnered him Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American, Ping Baseball All-Freshman and Rivals.com Freshman All-American Team honors.
Also contributing to those distinctions were his efforts on the mound, where he went a team-best 6-4 with 46 strikeouts and a 4.44 ERA in 12 games.
Aliotti followed that phenomenal season with a successful sophomore campaign this past year, when he again took the field in every contest and hit .303 with 13 doubles, 33 RBIs and a .399 OBP.
"I played every game both years so I've been blessed for that," he said.
He was also blessed with a glove.
A bigger one, too, as he's played first since he was a kid.
And it shows.
His perfect fielding percentage for the Oilers, having made no errors, is making everyone surrounding him more comfortable.
"J.T. Snow-esque, smooth and he makes your defense even better than it is," Myers said, referencing the former Major League first baseman. "Every infield that has a good fielding percentage is because of their first baseman. I think it's truly reflective because he's got great footwork around the bag, he can pick balls in the dirt and he's made some nice plays with the pitchers here and their communication. So, that's one of his real strengths is his defensive skills.
"He's bailed us out of a couple jams with his footwork and with his glove."
Not to mention his wood bat.
Prior to a two-game homestand with the Mat-Su Miners on Tuesday and Wednesday, during which Aliotti went 1-for-8 with three strikeouts, he was hitting a team-best .395 with a .488 slugging percentage.
Even with the 0-for-8 slide, which he snapped with an RBI single in his second at-bat in Thursday's 3-2 win over the Anchorage Bucs, Aliotti's numbers are still off the charts.
"He showed that he had good plate discipline and for me that's why he's having success here," Myers said. "He's one of the guys that from Day 1 has shown the same approach and has been hitting the ball where they serve it to him.
"I wouldn't say he's a pop guy as much as he's an alley to alley guy," he added. "He doesn't overswing, so he's going to put the ball in play. That's what he's done. He's had several two-strike hits because he doesn't overswing and get out of his approach."
None bigger, though, than his two-out, two-strike single in the bottom of the ninth that plated the tying and winning runs in the Oilers' 5-4 win over the Bears of California, a victory that capped an unblemished 9-0 homestand to kick off the summer.
"The thing is what some of the young guys are learning is that you can hit with two strikes, and he knows his own approach so well that it hasn't fazed him. Where some of the other guys are trying to get out of there so quickly because they're afraid to get to two strikes," Myers explained. "And that's a sign of a good hitter. A good hitter like (Hall of Famer) Wade Boggs, his career batting average with two strikes is over .300. (Aliotti) has a similar type of approach.
"I don't know if that's his hero or who he emulates, but he's a left-handed hitter and he's getting it done with two strikes."
Maybe even more impressive than his clutch hitting, though, is where he's accomplishing it from.
Aliotti batted sixth for the first five games of the season, going 5-for-6 with four RBIs in the second contest of the year.
"That's all I could ask for right there," Aliotti said.
He then moved up to No. 5 for the ensuing five games, pulling off a 4-for-7 night in a 2-1, 18-inning loss to the Mat-Su Miners, a game that was played over the course of two days.
"The longest game, grind, anything I've ever done ever," he said, adding it was the most at-bats he's ever had in a game. "I had a good day that day. Pitching was unreal."
For the five games following his stint in the fifth slot, he leapt into the three-hole and in Thursday's win, he went 1-for-4 with an RBI batting second.
"He's had some success and he knows how to deal with that," Myers said. "I also think he's been on both sides and he knows how to deal with it. And that's a sign of a good player, knowing how to handle slumps and struggles."
Quiet and methodical with his approach, as Myers put it, Aliotti, like every other ABL player, has the dream of one day playing professional ball.
"I think it will be possible to get drafted," he said. "Getting up to the show is definitely a challenge in itself. But hopefully I have another good year here and see what happens."
And if that doesn't materialize, he's geared toward returning to school for his senior season and graduation before following in the footsteps of his uncle, a fire chief in a nearby town.
"That's some good choices there," he said with a smile.
Myers, having coached a handful of Major Leaguers as well as being a former one himself, sees potential in his do-it-all player.
"I think with his approach, with his defensive skills and if he adds some strength and can show that he can turn on balls and hit for some power, he's definitely a guy who will get a chance. Because he hits for average," he said. "They don't judge first basemen for their foot speed. So, he's a left-handed hitter with a very, very good glove and if he hits for average ... he's definitely going to get an opportunity."
His six-foot, 205-pound frame shouldn't hinder him, either.
"That's the great thing about our game, it doesn't discriminate. There's giants and then there's the little guys," Myers said. "It's just the guys who, I think, fundamentally and mentally are always the same, and that's Anthony Aliotti."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.
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