High-A Bowling Green wins second straight title

September 22nd, 2022

For the second year in a row, the Bowling Green Hot Rods have taken home a title.

The Rays’ High-A affiliate bounced back from a big defeat in Game 2 and shut down the powerful Aberdeen offense en route to a 4-0 victory in a decisive Game 3 to claim the South Atlantic League crown. It’s the club’s third league title in the past five years.

"We didn't let our locker room get quiet after [Game 2] at all," Hot Rods manager Jeff Smith said. "We made it this far, it's a huge honor to play in the last game of the season. Not many teams get to play that very last day, and we were able to do that and get that last victory. They came out really wanting it."

Bowling Green and Aberdeen only mustered up one hit apiece through the first four innings, but after working out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the very first frame, the momentum was already in the defending champion’s favor.

Thanks to a Logan Driscoll double to lead off the fifth, Bowling Green had its first runner in scoring position. A popout, a single and a walk followed, loading up the bases for Mason Auer, who was fanned on four pitches. It seemed like another team would waste a bases-loaded chance, but a balk brought home the game’s first run.

By the end, it was all the Hot Rods needed.

Bowling Green starter Ben Peoples, riding a five-game streak of going at least five innings dating back to Aug. 17, only lasted 2 2/3 innings after walking three and throwing 75 pitches. Righties Austin Vernon, Evan Reifert and Antonio Menendez combined to spin 6 1/3 scoreless frames in relief, striking out eight while allowing three hits and a walk.

"We threw some really good arms at them," Smith said. "Vernon came in and really shut the door on them for three-plus innings. He kept going, putting up zeros and giving our offense a chance to put runs on the board."

The IronBirds’ best chance to even up the score came in the sixth, when Max Wagner smacked a two-out triple to put the tying run 90 feet away. Vernon didn’t blink, setting down Connor Pavolony on five pitches.

The slim lead soon ballooned to four after a three-run seventh. Johan Lopez and Michael Berglund opened the frame with back-to-back singles, and an Abiezel Ramirez sacrifice bunt put runners at second and third with one out.

It was Auer’s turn again to keep the line moving, and this time, he didn’t miss.

On an 0-2 pitch, Tampa Bay’s No. 13 prospect smacked a grounder down the third-base line for a two-run double to put some distance between the Hot Rods and the IronBirds. Tanner Murray singled him home to cap off the frame.

"Ramirez was able to get that bunt down, which was huge," Smith said. "That was a really big boost for our team."

Reifert came in and retired six of the seven batters he faced before Menendez closed out the game on nine pitches.

The Hot Rods took home the title in 2021, when the league was categorized as the High-A East. Historical circuit names returned in 2022, making this the first South Atlantic League title in Bowling Green franchise history. The club won its first championship as a member of the Midwest League in 2018.

Bowling Green finished the regular season 78-52, joining Single-A Charleston as Rays affiliates that have won a title in '22.

"It's a real special night," Smith said. "We told the guys before the game, 'We have to be great tonight. We have to be great one more time.' They really responded, and it was a special win for everybody involved."