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Remembering 2011: Rice hoping for one more opportunity

In case you missed an issue of the “York Revolutionary Times” this past season, we’ll be re-running columns by staff writer Ron Gardner here on the blog on Tuesdays.  In our third installment, Ron takes a look at the trials of relief pitcher Scott Rice, who worked through a mis-diagnosed arm injury that de-railed the career of what once appeared to be a sure fire big league prospect.  Rice is still trying to climb the ladder to the majors.

It sure seemed like Scott Rice was destined to pitch in the big leagues.  He was just 17 years old and barely out of high school when the Baltimore Orioles invested a first-round sandwich pick (44th overall) in the 1999 amateur draft to select Rice, along with a $700,000-plus signing bonus as a down payment on his baseball future.

Now after 12 seasons and 15 different minor-league teams later, the 29-year-old left-hander from Westlake Village, CA continues to hold out hope that his shot in the major leagues will still happen.

He’s come close to making it there before.  Like in 2006, when after seven seasons spent slowly working his way up through the Orioles’ minor-league system, Rice was pitching well for Triple-A Ottawa – just one step short of the big leagues.  With rumors of his impending call-up to Baltimore swirling, Rice broke the middle finger of his pitching hand when a heavy door accidentally slammed shut on it.

That injury only kept him out of the line-up for a week, but that was long enough to cost Rice that coveted big-league opportunity, which went to another southpaw, Kurt Birkins, instead. When the season ended without ever being brought up to the big club, even when rosters expanded in September, Rice was eligible to become a free agent and he went looking for a better opportunity to make it to the majors elsewhere.

The Texas Rangers were very interested and promised Rice that chance, until his second spring training outing against the Colorado Rockies in Tucson.  Rice immediately felt a stinging sensation in his arm after throwing a slider, but managed to finish out the inning without giving up a hit.  It wasn’t until he was driving home after the game that he realized something was seriously wrong.

“I was trying to hold my steering wheel and every time I reached out to extend, my arm just kept wanting to come back in,” Rice said.  “So I went the next day and tried to throw and couldn’t.”

Initially, the Rangers’ medical staff suspected an injury to the ulnar collateral ligament in Rice’s elbow that could have led to him needing Tommy John surgery, but an MRI revealed no damage there.  He kept trying to throw and it still hurt, so the team gave Rice a cortisone shot, which didn’t help either.

“At the time, I had never been hurt before,” Rice said.  “I didn’t understand what was going on.  It was all new to me.  I spent the whole year with Texas rehabbing and re-aggravating the injury.  They thought I didn’t want to pitch (and) I was trying to tell them my arm’s hurt.  But they’re telling me that nothing was wrong.”

The following year, Rice tried to pitch in spring training with the Los Angeles Dodgers and still couldn’t throw without pain.  Since his injury happened the year before when he was withTexas, Rice got back in touch with the Rangers, who continued to stand by their diagnosis that he wasn’t injured.

With nowhere else to play, Rice signed with the Long Island Ducks in the Atlantic League, continuing to throw in pain and without much success (2-2 record, 15.68 ERA in 7 appearances).

“Every time I threw it felt like someone was ripping a Band-Aid off the inside of my arm – like raw skin,” Rice said.

After three weeks with the Ducks, Rice’s agent sent him to see Dr. David Altcheck (the New York Mets’ team physician), who was able to quickly determine that Rice’s injury was actually a torn flexor tendon (the same type of injury suffered by Washington Nationals pitcher Steven Strasburg last season).

“Right away he saw it,” Rice said.  “It’s crazy.  I got two or three different MRIs from the Rangers and they never found it.  But I go see Dr. Altcheck and within five minutes, he finds it.”

So in July 2008, nearly 16 months after his injury, Rice finally got the surgery he needed.  In 2009, he appeared in 25 games (1-4, 7.36 ERA) with the San Diego Padres’ Double-A team in San Antonio, but Rice’s arm wasn’t yet fully healed and his pitches showed it.  He was released by San Diego and finished the year back in the Atlantic League pitching in nine games with the Newark Bears.  But 2010 was quite a different story.  Without an offer to play anywhere as spring training was about to open, Rice was forced to earn a roster spot by showing up at an open tryout with Colorado Rockies – a place where you won’t typically see many former first-round draft choices just hoping to land a job anywhere.  But Rice didn’t waste his opportunity and was named a Texas League All-Star pitching for the Rockies’ Double-A team in Tulsa (2-0, 0.96 ERA in 35 games), and earned a second-half promotion to Triple-A Colorado Springs (0-1, 6.75 ERA in 25 games).

This season, Rice went to spring training with the Chicago Cubs and pitched well during stints in both the major and minor league camps and thought he was on his way to Triple-A Iowa to begin the year.  But Rice was cut loose by the Cubs in the final few days of spring training, leaving him out of work once again when Revolution manager Andy Etchebarren (who Rice knew from his days in the Orioles’ farm system) called to offer the 6-7, 225-pound southpaw an opportunity to pitch in York and keep his baseball dreams alive.

Rice has managed to do much more than simply keep hope alive in his time with the Revs.  In his first nine appearances, Atlantic League teams did not score against a dominating Rice (1-0, 0.00 ERA, nine strikeouts and one walk in 9.1 innings).  He’s throwing harder now than he did prior to his arm injury (his fastball topped out at 93 mph in a recent outing), and insists he’s more focused on getting his fastball to move than trying to throw hard. His performance fuels plenty of speculation inside the York clubhouse that it won’t be much longer before Rice finds himself back in affiliated baseball.

“As of right now, he’s probably our pitcher out of the bullpen,”York pitching coach Mark Mason said.  “He has great downhill plane and great sink on the ball and he throws over 90 mph. If he keeps going the way he is … every day we come in here and say ‘is today the day (Rice is signed by a big-league organization)?’  He deserves an opportunity with the way he’s pitching.  I think he has a really great chance of getting back to an affiliate at some level.”

While Rice is eager for another opportunity to work his way toward realizing his dream of pitching in the big-leagues, he says he doesn’t worry about things he can’t control, like contract offers from major-league organizations, and insists he isn’t checking messages on his cell phone any more often than he normally does.

“You see so many guys who do great and get picked up, and (then) you see guys who do great and don’t,” Rice said.  “And you see guys who don’t do well (get signed).  You can’t worry about that.  You just go out every day and do what you can do.  It’s the same as being in Triple-A or in Double-A, going ‘am I going to get called up today or not.’  You can’t worry about that stuff.  I have a uniform on and I’m playing baseball, that’s all I care about.”

But don’t mistake Rice’s choice of words for a lack of resolve to show that he deserved to be a first-round draft pick a dozen years ago.

“That’s what keeps me going – I have the ability to play,” Rice said.  “It might have taken me a little longer, but I’m only 29.  You see lefty relievers pitching into their 40s.  Hopefully, I’ll get an opportunity to prove to people I am what they saw (back in 1999).”

Note:  On June 6, 2011 Rice had his Atlantic League contract purchased by the Los Angeles Dodgers after appearing in 15 games with the Revolution, posting a 2.46 ERA in 14.2 innings.  He averaged better than a strikeout per inning with the Revs, fanning 15 and walking only four.  With the Dodgers, Rice excelled at Double-A Chattanooga, allowing just 11 earned runs in 50.2 innings pitched and 34 games, for a 1.95 ERA.  Rice struck out 42 and walked just 17, holding opponents to just a .223 average in Chattanooga.

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