Rice’s ‘magical’ 3-HR day a first by Yanks rookie

Sports

NEW YORK — The anticipation was swelling for Ben Rice to emerge from the New York Yankees’ dugout for a curtain call during the seventh inning Saturday afternoon.

The rookie had just swatted his third home run at a sweltering Yankee Stadium in a 14-4 blowout win over the Boston Red Sox. The crowd, desperate for something to celebrate during this dreadful three-week stretch, clamored for Rice. Aaron Judge signaled for him to come out and receive the love from the on-deck circle.

But Rice didn’t know where to exit the dugout for the curtain call. He tried two spots, only to find the railing and no way out. Teammates directed him to the end, where he finally found an opening and ignited an explosion of noise. He doffed his helmet and smiled from ear to ear.

“Thankfully got it in,” Rice, 25, said. “That was pretty awesome.”

A big leaguer all of three weeks and four days, Rice, who grew up a Yankees fan in hostile territory outside Boston, became the first rookie in franchise history — back to the days of the Highlanders a century ago through Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and so on — to hit at least three home runs in a game.

Behind the rookie, the Yankees, who had dropped 14 of 18 games entering Saturday, snapped a four-game losing streak after a devastating 10-inning loss Friday night.

“Obviously, we’re going through it,” said Gerrit Cole, who allowed four runs across 4⅓ innings in his fourth start of the season. “And so we’ll take any kind of success really. I think it’s a little bit greater than that. It’s a historical day, magical day. And, to be honest, I’m pretty thankful that I get to be on the lineup card because I know he’ll remember it forever.”

Rice served as the Yankees’ leadoff hitter for the third straight game, an indication of his sudden importance for a free-falling club looking for steady production from anybody not named Judge or Soto.

He ignited the barrage with a leadoff blast off Josh Winckowski in the first inning. He added a three-run shot in the fifth and another in the seventh, both against Chase Anderson.

“Definitely a day I’ll never forget,” Rice said.

Days like these usually don’t happen for Ivy Leaguers on this stage. But Rice, taken in the 12th round out of Dartmouth as a catcher in 2021, burst onto the major league radar last season by slashing .324/.434/.615 with 20 home runs across three minor league levels.

He continued mashing pitching at Double-A this season before getting called up to Triple-A for the first time. In 11 games for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, he hit .333 with three home runs and a 1.059 OPS. Then Anthony Rizzo broke his arm June 16 at Fenway Park.

Two days later, Rice made his major league debut at first base, a position he began playing in 2022, and the success hasn’t ceased: After Saturday’s slugging exhibition, Rice is batting .294 with a .971 OPS with four home runs in 17 games.

Rice was never considered a top prospect nationally, but all along, going back to spring training, Yankees manager Aaron Boone was adamant about Rice’s hitting ability. He was convinced Rice could produce at the highest level even as the gap between Triple-A and the major league pitching continues growing wider than ever before.

The organization’s confidence in Rice — combined with a sudden lack of productive options — is evident in how he’s been deployed. Rice has started games against both righties and lefties even though he’s still learning how to play first base. He was promoted to the leadoff spot on the Fourth of July, taking the keys from Anthony Volpe as the Yankees searched for a spark, and clubbed his first career home run.

“You see the calm at-bats he takes,” Boone said. “He understands the strike zone. He doesn’t flinch at much. Easy takes. You see the pull-side power that he has too. I just think he combines controlling the strike zone with some barrel awareness and the ability to get the ball in the air pull-side.”

On Saturday, Rice swatted three pitches into the air pull-side over the right-field wall, etching his name in Yankees record books and solidifying his case for a permanent post in the lineup.

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