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Yankees’ Ben Rice gets first hit in MLB debut: ‘totally surreal’

There are doubts about the glove of the Yankees’ new interim first baseman, who played primarily as a catcher in college and with the team, and scouts have described him as “more of a DH.”

There are fewer questions about Ben Rice’s bat and fewer questions about his character.

With Anthony Rizzo out for about eight weeks with a fractured right forearm, Rice was promoted on Tuesday despite having just 52 minor league starts, giving the Yankees a chance to gauge the hot-hitting 25-year-old’s capabilities.

Ben Rice singled in his MLB debut, his first hit, in the top of the third inning of the Yankees’ 4-2 win over the Orioles. Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

He played right away.

Rice singled to right field in the third inning to load the bases, then had a smile on his face as he made his way to first base for his first hit.

“It was just a surreal experience, completely surreal,” said Rice, who went 1-for-4 during the Yankees’ game against the Orioles in the Bronx and performed the rice-eating salute for the first time during roll call. “I’ll never forget it.”

Rice, a left-handed batter, was expected to get many at-bats against right-handed pitchers, and he batted sixth against right-handed pitcher Albert Suarez.

Even before the injury, there were doubts about Rizzo’s ability to play this season after his defensive regressed and his OPS dipped to .630.

Rice will have a chance to show the Yankees he can thrive when the opportunity arises, and the team values ​​his hitting, his approach and who he is as a person.

“When you’ve been around major league hitters for a long time, you know when a ball is hitting that it’s a major league at-bat,” said Brad Ausmus, who replaced Aaron Boone as bench coach and acting manager early in the game. “He’s hitting the right pitches. He’s attacking the right pitches. He’s working the pitcher. Ben’s doing that.”

Ben Rice was all smiles as he celebrated with first base coach Travis Chapman after getting his first major league hit in the third inning of the Yankees’ win. Jason Senesu, New York Post

Rice has been doing that ever since the Yankees acquired him in the 12th round out of Dartmouth College in 2021, the same alma mater as Ausmus, who at the time sent general manager Brian Cashman a message of thanks for selecting another Big Green catcher.

Dartmouth’s Rice head coach Bob Whalen praised the former high school hockey stars’ powerful swings. “They’re all left-handed and they hit the ball well down low,” Whalen said of the skaters-turned-hitters. He also praised the Rice players’ work ethic, the tall, lanky college catchers’ commitment to yoga and various hip-mobility drills and the players the Yankees have promoted.

“Things are always going in a good direction,” Whalen said by phone. “He’s always having a good day. He’s a kid that not only plays, but plays hard in practice with really good energy.”

“He had a common trait among most, if not all, really good players: a desire to get better. A willingness to learn in order to improve himself.”

Whalen didn’t coach Rice for as long as he would have liked.

Giancarlo Stanton (left) celebrates with Ben Rice after the Yankees’ win. Jason Senesu, New York Post

Rice started all seven games in 2020 before the pandemic ended that season.

The 2021 Ivy League campaign was also canceled due to COVID-19.

But even without playing, Rice continued to find ways to make an impression.

He stayed on campus during the early days of the pandemic, pestering coaches about how he could help the team.

“Coach, what do you want me to do?” Whalen remembers Rice asking, offering to work with anyone he could.

When Rice returned to his home in Massachusetts, he gathered together a group of Ivy League athletes who had been barred from organized college sports and continued training at his Northborough complex.

“They called it the Rice League,” Whalen said, “and they all just wanted a place where they could continue to train.”

The efforts paid off when the Yankees discovered Rice through Northeast scouting supervisor Matt Hyde and selected him in the draft.

He’s steadily progressed through the system since then, accelerating his promotion last year.

He added some power to his game in 2023, hitting 20 home runs in 73 minor league games and posting a pretty impressive OPS of 1.048 across his time with Low-A Tampa, High-A Hudson Valley and Double-A Somerset, earning him the Yankees’ Fielder of the Year award.

He dominated Double-A pitching staffs this season and was promoted to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre a few weeks ago.

He was on base 44 percent of the time in 11 games and hit three home runs, but his play and Rizzo’s injury led to a FaceTime call from SWB manager Shelley Duncan at about 10 p.m. Monday informing him he was heading to the major leagues.

An overjoyed Rice called her father first, but luckily her mother and sister were nearby, and then she contacted Whalen shortly thereafter.

Rice said he “tried his best” to get some sleep after the call.

Although he’s originally from Cohasset, Massachusetts, Rice grew up a Yankees fan because of Derek Jeter, and on Tuesday he’ll step foot inside Yankee Stadium for the first time, getting the chance to make it his long-term home.

There’s confidence in his bat, confidence in his character and at least some hope in his glove.

A National League scout praised his dedication but added that he “still needs time” first.

“I definitely think there’s still a little bit of room for improvement,” Ausmus said of Rice’s performance at first base. “He hasn’t played a lot of first base. [but] “He’s a catcher by trade. … Obviously, his hitting has been very strong the last few years. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”