Before Rice beat Sox, Yanks beat them to him

July 8th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Bryan Hoch’s Yankees Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Long before left his mark on one of sports’ great rivalries by becoming the first Yankees rookie to hit three homers in a game, he was part of a different tug-of-war between the Bombers and their historic competitors.

Growing up in the shoreside New England town of Cohasset, Mass., Rice was very much in enemy territory, frequently wearing his beloved old-school Yankees dugout jacket in an ocean of Red Sox paraphernalia.

Not only did he once scrawl “Yankees Rule!” on the right-field Pesky Pole at Fenway Park, but Rice’s allegiances would be put to the test as a promising ballplayer at Dartmouth College, when he fielded interest from both teams.

“I had a chance to get drafted by them,” Rice said. “This is actually true: It was either going to be the Red Sox or the Yankees, probably, that picked me. Those were the teams that I knew liked me the most.”

To Rice’s delight, the Yankees beat Boston to the punch, selecting Rice in the 12th round of the 2021 MLB Draft. Just three short years later, Rice was rounding the bases for a third time against the Red Sox in the Bronx on Saturday afternoon, joining Lou Gehrig (1925) as the only other Yankees rookie to drive in seven runs in a single game.

Rice’s arrival in the Bronx came ahead of schedule, summoned to replace the injured Anthony Rizzo on June 18, and the 25-year-old looks like he’s here to stay.

A converted catcher, Rice has gamely handled the challenges of playing first base regularly, and he has remained productive since being moved to the leadoff spot as a replacement for the slumping Anthony Volpe.

“You see the calm at-bats he takes,” manager Aaron Boone said. “He understands the strike zone. He doesn’t flinch a bunch. Easy takes; you see the pull-side power that he has, too. He combines controlling the strike zone with some barrel awareness and the ability to hit the ball in the air from both sides.”

Boone said that he locked in on Rice this spring, when the prospect (rated No. 12 in the organization by MLB Pipeline) held his own during his first experience in big league camp.

“He’s coming off an outstanding year last year in the Minor Leagues that put him on the map and burst onto the scene,” Boone said. “He earned a trip to Spring Training and continued that through spring and then to start the year. He’s come up here and given us quality at-bats each and every day.”

So much so that the Yankees are open to keeping Rice in the lineup against both lefties and righties. Part of the motivation in acquiring veteran first baseman J.D. Davis was to take some of the load off Rice against left-handed pitching, but Boone said that Rice has held his own against southpaws.

“I've left him in there to face lefties mid-game, so I feel like those opportunities are in there,” Boone said.

Though Rice has been used once behind the plate, spelling Jose Trevino for the final inning of a June 28 blowout victory at Toronto, Boone said he does not sense any urgency to have Rice catching on a more regular basis.

“I feel like we kind of put a lot on his plate with coming up here and now moving him into the leadoff spot,” Boone said. “He's playing first base, and even though he has some experience over there, he's still very raw over there and still very much learning the position in a lot of ways. So I want him to kind of be able to focus on that.”

Rice credits striving for consistency as something that has helped him adapt to the numerous challenges that have been tossed his way.

“It’s just trusting my approach,” Rice said. “I have a lot of confidence in my approach, and up here is no different. The game hasn’t changed. The bases are all in the same spots. That’s allowed me to hit the ground running a little bit here.”