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Rays Minor League Baseball Road Trip: A guide to North Carolina — Game 1

Game 1: Bowling Green Hot Rods versus Hickory Crawdads at L.P. Frans Stadium June 23, 2021

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In my first Tampa Bay Rays North Carolina minor league baseball road trip article on DRaysBay, I pointed out that the changes made to the leagues of Minor League Baseball to form MLB’s new Professional Development League have created an opportunity for fans of the Rays and Bulls to see a larger number of Tampa’s MLB Top 30 Prospects playing in games against North Carolina based teams in their league whose ballparks are located in easy day-tripping distance from Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, NC.

As identified in that earlier blog post, the Rays High-A affiliate the Bowling Green Hot Rods traveled to Hickory, NC for a six game series versus the Hickory Crawdads (Texas Rangers) that started on Tuesday, June 22nd.

On that day, the Hot Rods ranked #1 in the South Division of the High-A East League with a 27W:13L record. On the other hand, the Crawdads, who are also a member of the league’s South Division, were 15W:27L and in last place. I attend game 2 of that series at Hickory’s home ballpark—L.P. Frans Stadium. The photo above shows the main entrance to the Crawdads ballpark. In this post, I will look at the Ray’s top prospects on the Bowling Green’s roster, the team’s offense leaders, and review the highlights of the June 23rd game.

Here are the Tampa Bay Rays MLB Top 30 Prospects on the Bowling Green Hot Rods roster.

Bowling Green Hot Rods—Tampa Bay Rays MLB Top 30 Prospects

The players that are member of the Tampa Bay Rays MLB Top 30 Prospects evolve as the season progresses. To be ranked among the top 30, players need to meet MLB’s rookie eligibility criteria, Those criteria are that a field player cannot exceed 130 at bats or a pitcher cannot pitch more than 50 innings at the Major League level. Also, a player will lose his rookie status if he is an active member of a Major League club’s 25-man rosters for 45 days. Loss of rookie status is probably the most common reason for changes of the player and their rank in a Major League club’s top 30 prospect group.

The table lists the current Tampa Bay Rays MLB Top 30 Prospects that are on the roster of the Bowling Green Hot Rods. Note that the list includes one pitcher and three field players. They have changed since the writing of my original “Rays Minor League Baseball Road Trip: A guide to North Carolina” article. At that point in time, the list of top prospects on the Hot Rods roster included just the three field players: #8 Greg Jones (SS), #17 Blake Hunt (C), and #28 Pedro Martinez (SS/2B). For those fact checking, as shown in the table, they have all moved up one notch and are now ranked #7, #16, and #27, respectively.

Also, a player that was earlier ranked as a member of the Ray’s top 30 could be promoted to another team in Tampa’s organization. In fact, that also happened relative to the Bowling Green Hot Rods. The fourth player in their top 30 table is left hand pitcher John Doxakis. He was promoted from the Charleston RiverDogs to Bowling Green on June 15th. As shown in the table, he too has moved up one slot from his earlier rank of #29 with the RiverDogs to #28 in the Hot Rods list.

A review of the table shows that just two of those four prospects, left hand pitcher John Doxakis and switch hitting shortstop Greg Jones, played in the Tampa Bay Rays Minor League organization during the 2019 season. The other two, catcher Blake Hunt and third baseman/second baseman Pedro Martinez were obtained during 2020 from the San Diego Padres and Chicago Cubs, respectively, via trades. Among that top 30 group, only Jones and Hunt played in the game I attended at Hickory.

Greg Jones Bowling Green Hot Rods shortstop.

Greg Jones should feel right at home playing in Hickory, North Carolina. He played college ball at the University of North Carolina (Wilmington, NC) prior to entering the 2019 draft. Jones was the Tampa Bay Rays first round pick and the 22nd overall player selected in that draft. Upon signing, He was assigned to the Hudson Valley Renegades—the Rays short-season A class team in the New York-Penn League.

For the start of the 2021 season, Greg Jones was assigned to the Bowling Green roster, but opened the season on the injured list. He made his debut in the Hot Rods uniform on May 11th as their starting shortstop and number 2 batter. Jones had an exceptional start to his 2021 season.

In that game, he reach base in his first three trips to the plate; had 2 hits in 3 official at bats; also reached base on a walk; scored 2 runs; and hit a three run homer in his second at bat with the Hot Rods. Since then, he has continued to serve those roles. Figure 3 shows Jones fielding a ball at short during the June 23rd game in Hickory.

Bowling Green Hot Rods—Team Offense Leaders

Up to recently, a player, who is not ranked among the Tampa Bay Rays Top 30 Prospects, was the leader of the Bowling Green Hot Rods offense. That was their cleanup hitter, left fielder Ruben Cardenas. However, on June 15th, he was promoted to the Rays AA team in the Southern League—the Montgomery Biscuits.

On the date of his last game in the Hot Rods uniform, Cardenas ranked #1 among all qualifying players on the team in eight of the standard offense statistic categories listed on the teams official website: runs scored (26), hits (43), home runs (10), runs batted in (31), batting average (.368), on-base percentage (.424), slugging percentage (.658), and on-base plus slugging percentage (1.082). However, to qualify as a league/team leader in AVE, OBP, SLG, and OPS, a player must have at least 3.1 plate appearances (PA) per league/team game. On the date Cardenas departed the Hot Rods for the Montgomery Biscuits, he had accumulated 132 plate appearances with Bowling Green.

Bowling Green Hot Rods regular season offense leaders.

As of game 4 of the Bowling Green Hot Rods series in Hickory on June 24th, which was Bowling Green’s forty-third game of the season, a team leader for AVE, OBP, SLG, and OPS required a minimum of 133 plate appearances. That has eliminated Ruben Cardenas from consideration as a team leader in those four stats.

The table here lists the current team leaders in the twelve Standard offense statistic categories listed on the Hot Rods official website. Note that Cardenas has also been passes up by another member of the Bowling Green Hot Rods roster in a few other categories. As shown in the table, after that game he did still rank number 1 or tied for #1 on the team in just two stats: H(43) and HR(10-tied with one other player).

A review of the table of Bowling Green Hot Rods offense leaders shows that all three of the teams Tampa Bay Rays Top 30 Prospects ranked field players have moved into a leadership positions of the team’s offense.

First, number 16 prospect, catcher Blake Hunt now ranks number one on the team in four stat categories: runs scored (31), doubles(10), batting average (.258), and slugging percentage (.477). Also, Pedro Martinez (#27 prospect), who has started at second base, shortstop, and third base for the Hot Rods, leads the teams in triples (2) and is tied with #7 prospect, shortstop Greg Jones for the team lead in stolen bases (11).

Jordan Qsar at the plate in the game versus the Hickory Crawdads.

The table shows that another player that is not ranked as a Rays MLB Top 30 Prospect, right fielder Jordan Qsar, has taken over as a key offense leader of the Bowling Green Hot Rods. Qsar is also a former college baseball player.

After playing for Pepperdine University, he entered the 2018 First Year Player Draft and was selected and signed by the Tampa Bay Rays.

Jordan Qsar played for the Bowling Green Hot Rods of the Midwest League (A class).in 2019. For the start of the 2021 season, he moved up with them to the High-A class and on opening day was the Hot Rods designated hitter and batted in the number 9 slot in their lineup. He still typically hits in the lower half of their batting order and has started games in each outfield position. In the game on June 23rd versus the Crawdads, he played right field and batted in the number eight slot of their lineup.

Note from the table that after the Hot Rods played their forty-third game on June 24th Jordan Qsar ranked #1 among all qualifying players on the team in three of the twelve stat categories listed in the table: base on balls (29), on-base percentage (.404), and on-base plus slugging percentage (.849).

Game 1 Highlights

The first game of Bowling Green’s away series at Hickory was a slugfest that the Hot Rods won by a score of 18 run to 4. The game that I attended on Wednesday June 23rd was the opposite—a pitching duel. Hot Rods sent lefty starter/reliever Jacob Lopez to the mound. Lopez entered the game with a 2W:0L record in 5 starts and 4 relief appearances. Lopez struggled a little; had runners on base in each inning; but succeeded in throwing three shutout innings. Overall he allowed 5 base runners, two on hits and three on walks, while striking out four Hickory batters.

On the other hand, the Crawdads starter was left hander Cole Ragans, who was a regular member of their starting rotation and had a 0W:2L in 7 starts. He got off a better start. Through four innings, he threw two 1, 2, 3 inning and allowed 0 runs on 1 hit and 3 walks.

Greg Jones at the plate in the 5th inning connecting with a pitch.

But in the top of the fifth, the Bowling Green Hot Rots got on the scoreboard. With one down, Cole Ragans walked the Hot Rods number nine hitter, second baseman Osmy Gregorio. Their next hitter struck out, but that pitch turned out to be a wild pitch that enabled Gregorio to advance into scoring position at second base.

Then, Bowling Green’s #2 hitter, shortstop Greg Jones came to the plate. He connected with a Ragan’s 3 ball, 0 strike pitch and drove the ball over the wall in straight away center field fence. The photo of Figure 5 shows Jones’s swing on which he hit that two-run homer. But, then Ragan retired the next batter to close out the inning. Cole Ragan departed after the fifth innings. His pitching line for the day was IP(5), R(3) H(2), BB(4), and SO(5).

Meanwhile, Bowling Green’s right hand reliever Evan McKendry, who replaced Lopez to start the top of the 4th, threw two more shutout innings. Therefore, after five innings of play, the Hot Rods lead the Crawdads 2 runs to 0,

Next, the two Crawdads relievers that followed Cole Ragan each shut down the Bowling Green Hot Rods offense by pitching two no hit innings. So over that entire 9 innings stretch, the Hot Rods had scored just 2 runs, but on only 2 hits. The key hit was Greg Jones’ home run.

The Bowling Green reliever that followed McKendry, righty Chris Muller, pitched perfect sixth and seventh innings while striking out four of the six batters he face. When Muller departed, he turned the game over to another right hand reliever Miller Hogan. In the bottom of the eight, the first batter Hogan faced reached first base on an E4. Then, the next batter hit a high fly ball toward the left field corner that was caught by Bowling Green’s left fielder Grant Witherspoon. However, on that play, the Crawdads runner on first tagged up and raced for second base. But, Witherspoon’s throw to second was on time for the out. That turned out to be a key play in the game.

With two outs and the bases no empty, Hickory’s number three hitter Kellen Strahm came to the plate. Strahm hit Hogan’s 3 ball, 1 strike pitch over the right center field wall for a solo home run. Instead of tying the game, his homer brought the Crawdads within 1 run of the Hot Rods at 2-1. Then, Miller Hogan struck out Hickory’s next batter to retire the side.

Hot Rods reliever Miller Hogan delivering a pitch to a Crawdads batter.

Hogan returned to the mound for the Bowling Green Hot Rod in the ninth inning for the close. He retired the first batter he faced, but then gave up a double to the Crawdads #6 hitter, right fielder Pedro Gonzalez.

That put the game tying run in scoring position. However, Miller Hogan struck out the next batter and the Hot Rods were one out away from a 2 run to 1 victory. With their #8 hitter about to come to the plate, the Crawdads sent up the Texas Rangers MLB #12 prospect, catcher David Garcia as a pinch hitter. But, the first pitch that Hogan delivered to Garcia was a wild pitch that let Gonzalez move to third.

The game tying run was now just 90 feet from home. However, Garcia flied out to center on the next pitch to retired the side. The photo of Figure 7 shows Hogan delivering that final pitch of the game to Garcia. The Bowling Green Hot Rods had held on for a 2-1 victory; reliever Evan McKendry got the win, and Miller Hogan recorded his first save of the season.

Walter Triebel is the author of “Road-Tripping the South Atlantic League: A Guide to the Teams, Ballparks and Cities” published by McFarland. It is available for purchase on their website as well as Amazon. Walter previously spent 15 years as an adjunct faculty member at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and has led an extensive career as a textbook and reference book author. You can follow him on twitter here.