The Hot Rods' inaugural season is history and so is the team's tenure in the South Atlantic League. For the benefit of Minor League Baseball, the Hot Rods and Lake County Captains will begin play in the Midwest League in 2010. While the Hot Rods missed their only shot at a South Atlantic League playoff berth, there were numerous highlights from the first play on April 9 to the last play on Labor Day. Before we close the books on 2009, let's take a look back at some of the team highlights and some of the personal milestones that will serve as benchmarks for future Hot Rods teams and players.
April 2009: In the Beginning...
The 2009 Hot Rods began their inaugural campaign the best way possible: with a win. Visiting the Hickory Crawdads, a Texas Rangers affiliate, the Hot Rods put up an 8-3 win at LP Frans Stadium. The first hit in team history came in the top of the fourth inning when 2008 No. 1 Draft Pick Tim Beckham smashed a solo home run to left, giving the Hot Rods their first hit, RBI, home run, and lead of the season. Chris Andujar picked up the win that day, setting the foundation for the best professional season of his career.
While the Crawdads pinched the Hot Rods three out of four, Bowling Green showed West Virginia who really had the Power, taking three of four from the Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate. The series victory set the stage for an historic night on April 17.
Introducing Bowling Green Ballpark
April 17, 2009 is a date not soon forgotten in the South Central Kentucky. Under clear skies and perfect 74-degree April weather, the Hot Rods christened their sparkling new stadium with an 8-4 win over the Kannapolis Intimidators (Chicago White Sox). Catcher Jake Jefferies picked up the ballpark's first hit, roping a double into the gap in left-center field. In the bottom of the second inning, no doubt feeding off the energy of a standing-room only crowd of 6,886, the Hot Rods ripped the game open with a three-run rally. RF Jason Corder drove in the first run of the inning, plating Mike McCormick to spark the rally. Singles by 3B Isaias Velasquez and Beckham padded the lead heading to the third inning.
When all was said and done, the Hot Rods pounded out a dozen hits in the game with four players tallying multiple-hit efforts. Left-hander Frank De Los Santos allowed just two runs over five innings of work, becoming the first player to grace the ballpark's new mound. Tommy Rafferty earned the win before Jamie Bagley closed the door with two scoreless frames to lock up the perfect night in Bowling Green.
Bowling Green would finish that opening home stand with a 4-4 record, again taking three of four from West Virginia. By splitting their first road trip and home stand, the Hot Rods were developing a script they would follow for the remainder of the first half.
MAY: South Korea, No. 1 Shines, and a Spin-off of CHiPS
As the calendar turned to May, three Hot Rods took center stage in the season's second month. Tim Beckham continued to impress fans, players, and coaches and managers across the league. The 19-year-old hit .326 in May, smacking nine extra-base hits while driving in 18 runs. He hit in ten straight to begin the month while simultaneously producing a nine-game RBI streak, both team and personal records at the time.
Meanwhile, another extra-base hit machine made his way to Bowling Green. After starting the year in Extended Spring Training, South Korean outfielder Kyeong Kang arrived in Kentucky carrying a bag full of doubles and triples. He hit .294 during 15 games, with more than half of his hits going for two or three bases.
While both Beckham and Kang thrived, no one had a better month than shortstop Robi Estrada. Despite having no relation to CHiPS star Erik Estrada, Robi was also a superstar, hitting a team-high .367 in 18 games. Like his more elegantly coiffured TV counterpart, the Hot Rods infielder did his best work on the road, going 17-39 (.436) over 11 games. He ended the month with a bang, homering at home on May 30.
By the end of the month, Estrada, Beckham, and Kang had helped the Hot Rods compile a 13-15 record, setting the stage of a solid June.
JUNE: The Rise of Matt Moore
Coming into the season, LHP Matt Moore was the next coming of Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, and Warren Spahn, all rolled into one. But, through the end of May, Moore pitched like a 19-year-old prospect pitches: inconsistent. That changed, however, when summer arrived. Beginning with four innings on June 1, Moore lowered the walks, raised the strikeouts, and began to dominate the South Atlantic League. He went 2-1 in June with a microscopic 1.63 ERA. The highlight of the month came on June 6, one day after another top prospect made his Hot Rods debut. In Asheville, North Carolina, Moore overpowered the Tourists (Colorado Rockies), throwing seven no-hit innings in a 10-2 Hot Rods win. He struck out a dozen men that night, allowing just two base runners on a pair of walks. By the end of the month he would strike out 42 would-be hitters in just 27.2 innings.
In addition to Moore, several other pitchers turned it up in June. Nick Barnese, the aforementioned additional top prospect, went 2-1 with a 1.64 ERA. Andujar continued to dominate with a 1.74 ERA in four relief outings and two starts. Righty Joe Cruz turned in one of the best outings of his career, turning 5.2 shutout innings into a 1-0 win over Greenville (Boston Red Sox) on June 10.
Mike Sheridan led the Hot Rods offensively, smacking four home runs, including a walk-off two-run shot on June 20 against Asheville. Velasquez surged through June, becoming the team's everyday third baseman while hitting .297 with the team's first grand slam on June 6.
JULY: Hitting their stride
By the time July rolled around, the Hot Rods had found their stride. Beginning on the final day of June, the Hot Rods reeled off nine wins in their first 12 games, highlighted by a sweep against the Rome Braves (Atlanta Braves). The middle of the month included the longest road trip of the season to Lakewood, NJ, and Salisbury, MD. Facing the Lakewood BlueClaws (Philadelphia Phillies) and Delmarva Shorebirds (Baltimore Orioles), the Hot Rods had the chance to win seven of eight games but ultimately settled for a 4-4 record on the road. The trip was highlighted by their best offensive showing of the season, a 14-run, 16-hit attack on July 16. That was followed up by a pair of late wins at Delmarva, including an 11-inning 5-2 marathon.
Individually, diminutive left-hander Josh Satow turned into the team's closer, compiling four saves, three wins, and a 1.13 ERA. He was joined by fellow bullpen stalwart Neil Schenk, who racked up three wins and a 1.62 ERA. Hitting-wise, Jake Jefferies raked at .315 with three home runs, placing him in the middle of a two month-plus stretch where he hit well above .300. John Mollicone began the month with a bang, or several of them, hitting .500 with three home runs and ten RBI, earning SAL Player of the Week honors on July 6. At the end of the month, Anthony Scelfo picked up the slack with a nine-game hitting streak powered by three home runs and 12 RBI.
AUGUST & SEPTEMBER: A Strong Start, A Hard Finish, and Personal Milestones
The final month of the season began in similar fashion to July. Starting July 29, the Hot Rods rolled to ten wins in 14 games, surging along with a season-high five-game winning streak and getting within 1.5 games of division leader Asheville. But, after squeezing by Greensboro with a 6-5 road win on August 17, fatigue, injuries, and sheer bad luck finally caught up to Bowling Green. The Hot Rods struggled to a 1-6 road trip, eventually losing seven straight.
They were able to lick their wounds for one night on August 26, thanks again to the West Virginia Power. On a Wednesday night with their playoff hopes dwindling, the Hot Rods put up a game and, in particular, one inning to remember. In the fifth inning, the Hot Rods sent 14 men to the plate, producing ten runs on nine hits. Jason Corder led the charge with a double and a triple, while Isaias Velasquez drove in three runs. Anthony Scelfo, Tim Beckham, Justin Reynolds, and Robi Estrada all picked up RBI as well, raising spirits to the brim. En route to a 13-3 win, Joe Cruz received the run support he lacked all season, picking up his fifth and final victory.
High spirits could not carry the day though as the Hot Rods won just two more games the rest of the season. Despite injured starters and promoted relievers, the Hot Rods played with pride until the end, staying in the race until official elimination arrived in the form of a heart-breaking 3-2, 16-inning loss to Asheville on August 30.
As for the personal milestones, the team saw tremendous input from RF Jason Corder. After missing ten weeks with injury, Corder returned in July and really heated up in August with a .315 average. He led the team with ten doubles and 15 RBI during the month. Tim Beckham put together a 13-game hitting streak, hitting .400 (22-55) during the run. Mike Sheridan also heated up over the final three weeks, hitting safely in 17 of the last 22 games with four doubles, a triple, a home run, and nine RBI.
No Hot Rods player had a better final five weeks though than Kyeong Kang. He finished the season at .307, an average that would have ranked fourth among league leaders had he compiled enough at-bats in the regular season. Over August and September, he hit .374 (37-99) with 15 doubles, two triples, two home runs, and 16 RBI. He ended the season on a 16-game hitting streak, a streak that will likely continue in the Florida State League in 2010.
The Final Numbers
Looking at the benchmarks for 2010, the next group of Hot Rods will need to aim high to surpass the Class of 2009.
Tim Beckham led the team in numerous offensive categories, including hits (135), doubles (33), and RBI (63). Kyeong Kang led in average with a .307 final mark (he fell 18 plate appearance short of league leader status). Beckham led the team in extra-base hits with 42, followed closely by 41 from Kang, the team lead with seven triples. Mike Sheridan provided the most power with 14 home runs while four players appeared in more than 120 games, led by 125 from Beckham and Anthony Scelfo. Isaias Velasquez displayed plenty of speed with six triples and a team-high 14 stolen bases.
On the mound, Chris Andujar's dream season resulted in a franchise-high ten wins and the fourth best ERA in the league at 2.70. Matt Moore not only led the Hot Rods with 176 strikeouts, he had more K's than any other pitcher in Minor League Baseball! Fellow lefty Frank De Los Santos set the bar with 135.2 innings pitched. Before his promotion to Charlotte (High A), Josh Satow led the team with 20 saves, a total that ranked fifth in the South Atlantic League.