Matt Rice is catching on quickly in professional baseball.
The Science Hill graduate is leading the New York-Penn League’s Hudson Valley Renegades (Fishkill, N.Y.) in hitting (.385) and has two home runs and nine RBIs in his first 39 at-bats.
Rice celebrated Independence Day with a bang. He went 2-for-5 with a home run and called a shutout behind the plate.
“It’s been a pretty smooth transition,” Rice said. “We’re having some success on the field, and I think it’s mainly due to the fact that the coaches and all the players have been so great about just welcoming new guys in and trying to help them as much as possible.”
The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Rice, a ninth-round draft pick by Tampa Bay, wasn’t a highly touted prospect when he left Science Hill for Western Kentucky University. His frame and his hitting don’t fit the catcher/batter prototypes, but it doesn’t take long for baseball veterans like Hudson Valley manager Jared Sandberg (Ryne’s nephew) to see that Rice is a polished player.
“He’s a tremendous worker,” Sandberg said Wednesday evening. “He works extremely hard every single day. He comes prepared and ready to play every day, and that’s a great attribute to have and something you have to do if you want to advance to the next level.”
Rice worked with former major league catcher Jeff Reed as a teenager. Sandberg crossed paths with Reed when Sandberg coached Tampa’s Appalachian League affiliate in Princeton, W.Va.
“Obviously, Jeff’s career speaks for itself,” Sandberg said. “And for Matt to be able to work with a big-league player like Jeff Reed gave him a leg up on everybody.”
Rice had played in 10 of Hudson Valley’s 18 games through Tuesday. He has caught five games and has also been a designated hitter.
“We had to work him into playing shape,” Sandberg said. “After his senior season was over with he took some time off. He came in here in pretty good shape, but not really in game shape. … It’d be nice to get him in there three or four times a week behind the plate.”
Rice has impressed with the bat and the mitt.
“He’s had a nice start with a couple of home runs,” Sandberg said. “I think the home runs were a little surprising. He’s done a nice job with the bat.
“He’s also done a very nice job behind the plate. He commands the respect of the pitching staff — running the pitching staff, signal calling and throwing the ball to second base. He’s done a nice job with his overall game. His pro career’s off to a great start.”
Rice is living a dream. After an 8-5 win at Aberdeen (Md.) on Tuesday, the Renegades were on a four-hour bus ride back to Fishkill.
Rice was playing in front of 6,679 fans when he hit the home run and caught the shutout on July 4. Visiting the New York Yankees’ and Mets’ affiliates in Staten Island and Brooklyn, respectively, usually means playing in front of 7,000-10,000 fans.
“Thus far, it’s been a whole lot of fun,” Rice said. “We’re getting to play in front of some really big crowds. … That’s been a neat experience playing in that kind of atmosphere every single night.”
Rice isn’t likely to get a call-up from the short-season league (72 games).
“It’s for guys to come in for a half season and get their feet wet in professional baseball and get used to the grind,” Sandberg said, “and then next year move them up to the next level.”
One tough adjustment for Rice is not being permitted to have a cell phone in the clubhouse (an organizational rule). Rice really doesn’t mind, but it’s made it difficult to talk with former Science Hill teammate Paul Hoilman, who is playing three hours later for the Boise Hawks in the short-season Northwest League.
“I really haven’t got to talk to Paul that much because whenever he’s done with his game I’m probably in bed by then, and whenever I’m going to the field he’s probably not awake,” Rice said. “I know he had a real big night the other night. He hit a home run, a walk-off in the 10th, which I know is extremely exciting.”
Hoilman is hitting .268 and leads the team in home runs (three) and RBIs (13). In fact, his three home runs are as many as the rest of the team combined.
“It’s always great to get off to a hot start,” Rice said. “I know it’s a long season, but to start off hot is good — just for the fact that you can really gain the respect of your teammates and your coaches.”