Hot Rods make positive strides in 2023

Published 3:02 pm Monday, September 11, 2023

By Micheal Compton, Bowling Green Daily News

The Bowling Green Hot Rods’ season came to a close with Sunday’s 6-5 loss to Greensboro at Bowling Green Ballpark.

The season ended with the High A Hot Rods – an affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays – one out from victory before Greensboro hit a go-ahead three-run homer to stun BG. The tough loss could easily be seen as a microcosm of 2023 for Bowling Green, which finished 69-57 overall but failed to make the playoffs after finishing third in the division in the first half and second in the second half – denying the Hot Rods a chance at three straight league championships.

While BG fell short of the postseason, first-year BG manager Rafael Valenzuela said it was still a good season.

“We still finished with one of the top records in the league,” Valenzuela said. “We graduated a lot of guys to the next level, which is our goal. Our goal is to get them to the next level. Our goal is to get them to the big leagues. If we do a good job as a staff, we are going to win a lot of games, and I think we did a phenomenal job as a staff. We had big turnover, guys coming in and out, and we stayed competitive the entire season.”

Bowling Green started slow in the first half, under .500 for much of the early part of the season, before a late push put the Hot Rods in contention. BG ultimately finished third in a three-team race that went down to the final week with Greenville winning the first half and Winston-Salem the second by one-half game. The Hot Rods were 2½ back in the first half with a 31-30 record, unable to overcome a 9-21 road record.

The Hot Rods were much better in the second half, finishing 38-27 – the second-best record in the South Atlantic League. BG had a +109 run differential and scored the most runs in the league in the second half, but were never able to catch a Hickory team that started the second half with an 11-game win streak and finished with six straight wins.

“We did a nice job,” Valenzuela said. “Like I said right before the break, ‘We are in a good spot.’ We competed the entire second half. I think we only lost one road series in the second half. I thought it was a good job of these guys to turn it around and put us in a good spot going into August.”

Bowling Green had a lot of the opening day roster eventually promoted at some point during the season, including one of the Tampa Bay Rays’ top prospects – infielder Junior Caminero.

Caminero played 36 games for the Hot Rods, hitting 11 homers with a 1.094 OPS before being promoted to Double-A Montgomery. Catcher Kenny Piper and pitcher Patrick Wicklander were among the other players that spent time in Bowling Green before moving up.

“It was a fun year for me here,” Valenzuela said. “It was fun for the staff as well. A lot of good guys came and went. At the end of the day, we get paid to get these guys to the big leagues and help (Tampa Bay manager) Kevin Cash. I think we did a nice job of doing that.”

Among the players who spent the bulk of the time in Bowling Green, shortstop Carson Williams was the standout among everyday players. The 2021 first-round pick had a brief promotion to Triple-A Durham, playing in four games before returning to finish his year in Bowling Green. Williams was second on the Hot Rods in games played (105) and led the team with 23 homers, 77 RBIs and 102 hits.

“I think that kid has a bright future,” Valenzuela said. “He is going to play shortstop for us for a long, long time. He’s got the potential to be an all-star and a potential to play 20 years. I’m excited to see him in the near future. Hopefully, he will be at the Trop in two years.”

While the season didn’t end with another championship celebration, Valenzuela said he would classify the 2023 Hot Rods as a success – with the team making the strides they needed to continue the trek toward Major League Baseball.

“Like I told them in the meeting (after Sunday’s game), this game can be very selfish,” Valenzuela said. “A lot of guys tend to look out for themselves, but I think these guys did a nice job of becoming a team, staying together, backing each other up. It’s emotional that it ends, but I think these kids have a bright future. I say, ‘Thank you’ to them … and I say, ‘Thank you’ to the city of Bowling Green because it was a fun year.”