Rice, Carter continuing baseball careers with the Hot Rods

Matt Rice and Kes Carter are playing this season for the Bowling Green Hot Rods, the Single-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays. The former Toppers hope to eventually play in the major leagues.

Brad Stephens

Life for Kes Carter and Matt Rice isn’t totally different now than it was at this time last year.

The two still live at College Suites, still hang out at their favorite restaurants and still spend as much time as they can with the WKU baseball team.

And the two are still receiving an education, though it doesn’t come in a college classroom.

The former WKU sluggers turned Bowling Green Hot Rods are instead learning how to be professional baseball players.

“We’re extremely lucky,” Carter said. “I don’t think I’ve come across anybody that’s had that situation in front of them.”

Carter, an outfielder, and Rice, a catcher, were both drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2011 MLB Draft, two of a school-record six WKU players drafted.

Carter was drafted No. 56 overall last season after his junior year, making him the highest draft pick in school history.

Meanwhile, Rice graduated last spring as WKU’s all-time hits and RBIs leader.

With the Hot Rods serving as the Rays’ low Single-A affiliate, both Carter and Rice expressed excitement on draft day that they’d likely be playing the 2012 season in Bowling Green.

The former Toppers are now a full two and a half weeks through their first full professional season.

“It’s baseball 24/7,” Carter said. “We’re back in Bowling Green, and it feels like we’re back in school, but we’re not going to classes — it’s just baseball, baseball, baseball.”

Rice and Carter are the team’s two local kids, with other Hot Rods players coming anywhere from California to Maryland to the Dominican Republic.

“The first few days, there’s a lot of questions,” Rice said of he and Carter’s roles as team tour guides. “As you keep going, there’s gradually less and less. They’re getting settled in just like anyone would.”

Rice said one of the biggest differences between life as a WKU player and a Hot Rod is the road trips.

As Midwest League members, the Hot Rods travel throughout the season to towns like Comstock Park, Mich., South Bend, Ind., and Beloit, Wis.

“On the days that we aren’t playing, most of them were driving over 10 hours,” Rice said. “So it’s an off day, but it’s an off day on the bus.”

Through the games each day in front of small Midwestern crowds, the two are fighting against the odds to make it to the majors.

There are more than 150 teams across all levels of affiliated minor league baseball.

All those players are competing for spots on one of 30 major league teams.

“It’s just the constant process of everybody talking about learning and about getting better every single day,” Rice said. “You don’t go from a college or a high school player to a big leaguer in one year.”

However, Rice got a small taste of the major leagues in February and March during Rays spring training.

During spring training, he caught Rays right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year.

He also hit off David Price, a Rays left-hander who’s made two All-Star appearances in just three full Major League seasons.

“Being up there and trying to have an at-bat against him was a lot of fun,” Rice said.

It’ll likely be a few more years, if ever, before Rice and Carter are playing in the majors with players like Hellickson and Price.

The two would still have to rise up through the rest of the Rays’ talented farm system, making stops with the Advanced Single-A Charlotte Stone Crabs, Double-A Montgomery Biscuits and Triple-A Durham Bulls along the way.

But the duo have started strong in Bowling Green, helping the Hot Rods to a 12-5 record through Sunday.

Carter said he hopes to keep making the most out of his time playing pro ball in his college town.

“Thus far, we’ve started off pretty hot, and we’re looking to stay hot down the stretch,” Carter said. “We just want to give these fans something to cheer about.”