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Rays Minor League Baseball Road Trip: A guide to North Carolina — Game 7

Game 7: Bowling Green Hot Rods versus Greensboro Grasshoppers at First National Bank Field August 17, 2021

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In an earlier DraysBay blog post, I introduced the Bowling Green Hot Rods as the High-A class affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays in the High-A East League of MLB’s new Professional Development League. Up to this point in the 2021 season, the Hot Rods have traveled twice to North Carolina, which is the home of Tampa’s AAA team—the Durham Bulls. Both times they played a series of games versus another member of the South Division of that league. My earlier post for SBNation’s Tampa Bay Rays blog highlighted a game Bowling Green played against the Hickory Crawdads (Texas Rangers) in late June.

The Bowling Green Hot Rods returned to NC for a six game series versus the Greensboro Grasshoppers on August 17th. The Grasshoppers are the High-A team in the Pittsburgh Pirates Minor League organization. I attended game 1 of that series on Tuesday August 17th. On that date, the Bowling Green Hot Rods’ record was 63 wins, 27 losses and they ranked #1 in the South Division. However, the Greensboro Grasshoppers, whose record was 58W:32L were in second place in that division 5.0 games behind the Hot Rods. The photo above shows the front entrance of First National Bank Field, which is the home ballpark of the Grasshoppers.

Since the game in June, a number of the MLB top prospects on the Hot Rods roster have changed as well as the players that lead the team in the standard offense stats listed on the team’s official website. In this DraysBay post, I will update that information. Then, I will highlight the plays and offense leaders of the game I attended. Finally, something took place in the game that I think is unique and that I believe I had never seen happen before in a game. You will need to read to the end to learn what that was!

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

The Tampa Bay Rays MLB Top 30 Prospects that are members of the Bowling Green Hot Rods roster have changed quite a bit since the team visited North Carolina to play the Hickory Crawdads in late June. At that point in time, four members of the Hot Rods roster were ranked among Tampa’s top 30 prospects. However, on August 10th two of them, shortstop Greg Jones (#5 prospect) and catcher Blake Hunt (#13), were both promoted to Tampa’s AA team—the Montgomery Biscuits.

The table here lists the current Rays’ Top 30 Prospects on the Bowling Green Hot Rods roster. Note that the list still has four players. The players that departed were replaced by two other Rays’ top 30 prospects that played most of the first half of the season at the Low-A class with the Charleston RiverDogs. They are second baseman Curtis Mead (#26 prospect) and right hand pitcher Taj Bradley (#16).

Note that only two of those four players, pitchers Taj Bradley and John Doxakis played in Tampa’s Minor League system in 2019. The other two, Curtis Mead and Pedro Martinez, were obtained by the Rays via trades with the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs, respectively. Among that top 30 group, only the field players appeared in the game. Curtis Mead played third base and hit in the number 3 slot in the Hot Rods batting order, while Pedro Martinez took the field at shortstop and batted ninth.

Bowling Green Hot Rods—Team Offense Leaders

The table here lists the leaders of the Bowling Green Hot Rods offense on the date of the start of their series in Greensboro. Greg Jones and Blake Hunt were both key leaders of Bowling Green’s offense. Since they both left the team so recently, the table shows that they still rank #1 on the team in one or more of the twelve standard offense statistic categories on the Hot Rods’ official website. In fact, on that date Jones led the team or was tied for #1 in seven of those twelve stats: R, 3B, SB, AVE, OBP, SLG, and OPS.

Grant Witherspoon at the plate in the game versus the Greensboro Grasshoppers.

Since the game I attended in late June, two other players have emerged on the team offense leaders list. They are first baseman, cleanup hitter Evan Edwards and center fielder, #5/#6 hitter Grant Witherspoon. In the August 17th game versus the Greensboro Grasshoppers, they were both in the Hot Rods starting lineup. Edwards fielded first base and was Bowling Green’s cleanup hitter, while Witherspoon played center field and hit fifth.

Grant Witherspoon is a former college player. He played baseball at Tulane University prior to entering the 2018 First Year Player Draft. Witherspoon was the Rays 4th round pick in that draft. Witherspoon played for the Bowling Green Hot Rods in 2019, but that year they were the Rays full-season A class team in the Midwest League. He returned to the Hot Rods for the start of this season, but is now playing at the High-A class. On opening day of the 2021 season, Witherspoon was Bowling Green’s starting center fielder and hit in the number six slot in their batting order. He serves the role of a power hitter in the Hot Rods lineup.

Note from the table that Grant Witherspoon led or was tied for #1 on the team in three offense stat categories: hits (76), home runs (17-tied with 2 other players), and runs batted in (55). However, he also ranked #2 to Hunt in doubles and #2 to Jones in batting average. The photo above shows Grant Witherspoon at the plate in the Hot Rods game I attended at First National Bank Field.

Game Highlights

The Bowling Green versus Hickory game I attend at Hickory, NC in late June was a pitching duel between the team’s starters and relievers in which the Hot Rods beat the Crawdads 2 runs to 1. This Bowling Green Hot Rods game against the Greensboro Grasshoppers on August 17th was the exact opposite—a slugfest. A look at the photo of the scoreboard shows that during the first five innings either the Hot Rods or the Grasshoppers scored one or more runs in all but two half innings and at the end of five complete innings of play Bowling Green had a 11 runs to 8 lead.

The Greensboro Grasshoppers sent one of their top pitchers to the mound for the start. That was right hander Grant Ford, who entered the game with a 7 win, 2 loss record in six starts and 14 relief appearances. Ford went 3 complete innings for Greensboro; allowed 5 runs on 4 hits and 3 base on balls; and departed with the Grasshoppers losing 5-4.

The Hot Rods starter, righty Alan Strong, also departed early. Strong pitched for Bowling Green in 2019 when they were a full-season A class team in the Midwest League, but made the jump to the Montgomery Biscuits (AA class) for the start of the 2021 season. However, he was reassigned to the Hot Rods on June 1st; initially pitcher out of their bullpen; but transitioned into the starting role in mid July.

Entering this game he was 6W:1L in 6 starts and 11 relief appearances with Bowling Green. Strong departed with a runner on first base and 2 outs in the bottom of the 4th, but after having already given up 2 runs in that inning. Reliever Ezequiel Zabaleta retired the side to shut down that Greensboro rally. So Alan Strong’s pitching line for the day was IP(3.2) H(8), R(6), BB(1) SO(6) and he left the game with the Hot Rods winning 10-6.

The scoreboard shows that from that point forward in the game, the Bowling Green Hot Rods never gave up the lead. Also, Hot Rods relievers allowed the Grasshoppers 2 runs in the bottom of the fifth, but then shut down their offense the rest of the way. On the other hand, Greensboro’s bullpen did not harness Bowling Green’s offense. From the 5th inning on, the Hot Rods scored another 7 runs for a 17 to 8 victory.

A look at the scoreboard shows that the Grasshoppers out hit the Hot Rods 15 to 14. However, it does not show that seven of Bowling Green hits were for extra bases—five home runs and two doubles. Also, not shown is that Greensboro’s pitchers expanded Bowling Green’s offense by walking 10 batters one of which was with the bases loaded, hitting two others with a pitch, and throwing three wild pitches on two of which runs scored.

Bowling Green’s offense was so dominant that I will just highlight their multi-run rallies here. In the top of the first inning, nine Hot Rods batters came to the plate. With one out, they loaded the base on a walk to number 2 hitter Brett Wisely, #3 hitter Curtis Mead hit by a pitch, and another walk to clean up hitter Evan Edwards. That brought #5 hitter, center fielder Grant Witherspoon to the plate. He singled to drive in run 1 of the inning. The next batter, right fielder Jordan Qsar singled home runs 2 and 3. Then, #8 hitter Hill Alexander (LF) singled to send Witherspoon home with the fourth and final run of the rally. At the end of one-half inning of play, the Bowling Green Hot Rods had taken a 4 run to 0 lead.

In the second inning, the Hot Rod added a solo run, while in the second and third innings the Greensboro Grasshoppers rallied to scored 2 runs and reduce Bowling Green’s lead to 5-4 at the end of 3 innings of play. In the second inning, the Grasshoppers’ cleanup hitter, DH Blake Sabol led off and walked; advanced to second on a single by #5 hitter, catcher Henry Davis; and then both runners moved up a base on a passed ball by the Hot Rods catcher. Sabol and Davis crossed the plate on a one out double by #7 hitter Will Matthiessen (RF). Then, with one out in the bottom of the third inning, #3 hitter Jared Triolo (3B) singled; stole second base; and came home on a triple by Blake Sabol. Finally, Sabol crossed the plate with run 2 on a sacrifice fly by the next batter, Henry Davis.

In the top of the fifth inning the Hot Rods batted around with a total of 10 hitters coming to the plate and scoring 5 runs. That rally began when number 9 hitter Pedro Martinez (SS) hit a leadoff double. Then Bowling Green’s #1 batter Connor Hollis (DH) singled to put runners on first and third base. Next, #2 hitter Brett Wisely walked, but ball 4 was a wild pitch that let Martinez race home with run 1 of the inning.

With two outs and runners still on first and second base, #6 hitter Grant Witherspoon came to the plate. He singled to drive in Hollis with run 2. That brought up #7 batter Jordan Qsar, who connected with the 2 ball, 2 strike pitch delivered to him and drove it over the right field wall for a run homer. On that three-run homer, runs 3, 4, and 5 of the inning scored and Bowling Green broke out to a 10-4 lead.

Again, in the bottom of the fourth and fifth innings, the Greensboro Grasshoppers scored 2 runs to close the gap to 11-8. Their two-run rally in the 4th inning was launched with a single by number 7 hitter Will Matthiessen. Then with one down, #9 batter Jonah Davis (CF) doubled to drive in Matthiessen with the first run of the inning. Next, Davis advanced to third on a pitching balk and then crossed the plate with run 2 on a sacrifice fly by Greensboro’s leadoff hitter Liover Peguero.

The Grasshoppers’ rally in the 5th was started by number 5 batter Henry Davis, who led off in that inning. He scored the first run by hitting the first pitch delivered to him over the right center field wall for a home run. Then, the next hitter Lolo Sanchez (LF) singled; moved into scoring position at third on a single by Will Matthiessen, and raced home with run 2 of the inning on a ground out to first base.

Hot Rods first baseman Evan Edwards.

The Hot Rods offense struck again in the top of the 7th inning, Number 2 hitter Brent Wisley led off and walked. Then, he advanced to second base on a single by #3 hitter Curtis Mead. That brought cleanup hitter Evan Edwards to the plate. The first two pitches to Edwards were wild pitches. On the first, both runners moved up a base and on the second Wisley came home with run 1 of the innings. But, then Edwards connected with the next pitch and sent it over the right center field wall for a 2-run homer. That rally increased Bowling Green’s lead to 14 runs to 8.

The Bowling Green Hot Rods 3 run rally in the seventh has an interesting side note. Which is that Evan Edwards, who closed out the rally with a home run, was born in Greensboro; North Carolina; graduated from Southern Guilford High School in Greensboro; and then went on to play college baseball for the North Carolina State University Wolfpack. The photo above shows Evan Edwards crossing the plate after his home run trot around the bases at his home town Greensboro ballpark—First National Bank Field.

Finally in the top of the ninth inning, Jordan Qsar hit his second home run of the day. This time a 2-run homer with Curtis Mead who had been hit by a pitch on base. That home run put the Bowling Green Hot Rods up by the final score of 17 to 8.

Bowling Green Hot Rods fame offense leader—right fielder Jordan Qsar.

Bowling Green Hot Rods Game Batting Leaguers

In this win over the Greensboro Grasshoppers, a number of Bowling Green Hot Rods players had an excellent day at the plate. However, their #6 hitter, right fielder Jordan Qsar was the top offense leader of the game. My earlier review of the highlights of the game identified that Qsar played the key role in three of Bowling Green’s four multi-run rallies. For the day, he had 3 hits in five official at bats; walked in another trip to the plate; and scored 3 runs.

In the introductory section of this post, I indicated that something unique occurred in the game that I believe I had never seen before. Jason Qsar is the source of that happening! As mentioned earlier, he got RBI hits in three of the Hot Rods multi-run rallies. In fact, Qsar hit a 2 RBI single in the first inning; a 3 run home run in the 4th inning; and a 2 homer in the 9th. However, in the fifth inning when Bowling Green scored a single run, Qsar walked with the bases loaded to drive in that run. The photo above shows the swing on which Jason Qsar hit his homer in the 4th inning. On that home run, the Hot Rods scored their 8, 9th, and 10th runs of the game. So, Qsar actually drove in Bowling Green’s eventual game winning run 9 on that play.

What really stands out to me is that I don’t think I had ever seen a player accomplish what Qsar did when he drove in 8 of Bowling Green’s 17 runs, and I have attended a lot of Minor League and Major League baseball games.

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.