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Rice still on cusp of realizing Hollywood ending, or beginning, to his story

The spring training chapter of Scott Rice’s continuing journey toward the major leagues has ended with Rice being assigned to Triple-A Albuquerque, but perhaps as close as he’s ever been to the majors, Rice could be within arm’s reach of earning a spot on the Dodgers’ big league roster.

The Atlantic League has a long history of its players earning contracts with major league organizations, and in many cases, reaching the major leagues.  Hopefully soon, another name can be added to that list, with Atlantic League graduate Scott Rice nearly as close as he’s ever been to being added to a major league roster.  Rice impressed in major league camp with the Los Angeles Dodgers this spring, so much so that he forced his roster decision to come down to the final day before he was assigned to Triple-A Albuquerque where he is now the closer for the Isotopes, no doubt a coveted job at that level.  With only one southpaw currently in the Dodgers bullpen, one has to believe that the first spot to open up on the big league pitching staff would go to Rice, who began his Triple-A season with a perfect ninth inning in a save situation on Friday night.

For Rice, the journey to Dodger Stadium would perhaps be even more special given all that he’s had to overcome in his sometimes tumultuous but never dull career path.  But aside from that, the first pitch that he’d throw in Dodger Blue would represent his major league debut.  And, it would come for the team that he grew up rooting for.

The old cliché that it’s a script that can’t be written, or that it’s a story that would be rejected in Hollywood because it’s so unbelievable… clichés such as those would certainly apply in the case of Rice, who will hopefully soon experience that Hollywood ending, or beginning, at long last to a rollercoaster ride of a journey full of twists and turns that he’s been writing ever since signing his first pro contract out of high school as a 17-year-old in 1999.

A first-round sandwich pick (44th overall) of the Baltimore Orioles out of Royal High School in Simi Valley, CA, Rice packed his belongings and moved cross country to begin his pro career in the sweltering heat of the Gulf Coast League where he would spend his first two seasons in baseball boot camp.  His third year was spent in the modest surroundings of Bluefield, WV in the Appalachian League where he went 4-3 with a 4.12 ERA in 12 starts.  A solid season, but not jaw-dropping numbers.

In 2002, Rice went a combined 1-13 between Aberdeen and Delmarva.  Statistically, it was a slow start to Rice’s career, but by 2003, at age 21, the lefty was moved to a full-time bullpen role for the first time and seemed to be on the right track. 

Rice burst back onto the prospect scene with Delmarva, going 4-1 with a 0.94 ERA in 32 appearances, and holding South Atlantic League hitters to a .130 batting average.  He was then bumped up a level to Frederick, and continued to impress posting a 3.19 ERA in 25 games in the Carolina League.

Rice continued to develop, and spent the following two seasons with Double-A Bowie where he was just as solid, and in fact appeared in the second most games in the Eastern League in 2005.

In 2006, it was on to Triple-A Ottawa, and the doorstep, all too literally for Rice, of the big leagues. 

It was another strong season, as he spun a 3.86 ERA over 52 games in the International League, and he did in fact receive the call that every minor leaguer dreams of getting.  But he never made it to Baltimore.  In a cruel twist of fate, the night before he was supposed to report to the big club, he accidentally closed his hotel room door on his hand, breaking his finger.  All of this time later, Rice still has yet to receive that call again.

His road became only rockier from there, “bouncing around” to put it mildly.  A serious elbow injury suffered in spring training with Texas the following year went misdiagnosed by multiple organizations and cost him most of his next two seasons, putting his career in jeopardy.  He appeared in only eight games in the Rangers organization in 2007, and just seven games in his first Atlantic League sojourn with Long Island in 2008.  Coming off surgery in 2009, the San Diego Padres took a chance on him and placed him at Double-A San Antonio, but not completely healed, he went 1-4 with a 7.36 ERA in 25 games out of the bullpen and was released, returning to the Atlantic League for nine appearances with Newark.

Rice finally seemed to regain his health and his form in 2010 after landing in the Colorado Rockies organization following an open tryout.  He was dominant at Double-A Tulsa, going an eye-opening 2-0 with a 0.96 ERA in 35 games, being named a Texas League All-Star in the process.  It also earned him a promotion to Triple-A Colorado Springs for the second half of the season, his first time at that level in five years.

The Rockies chose not to retain Rice’s services, however, and he joined his fifth different organization in six years, signing with the Chicago Cubs after the season.  Rice appeared in four major league spring training games with the Cubs and allowed only one earned run in five innings, but more frustration awaited as even that performance did not earn him a spot in the Cubs system despite believing he’d be on his way to Triple-A Iowa to begin the year.

His late release from Cubs camp prompted a call from Revs manager Andy Etchebarren who remembered Rice from his days in the Orioles system.  Rice arrived at Sovereign Bank Stadium a few days before the 2011 season opener, looking to prove himself yet again.

It was in York where Rice finally seemed to put it all back together and reach his full potential.  Working closely with Revolution pitching coach Mark Mason who helped him tweak a few things mechanically to harness his command, Rice was dominant, holding opponents scoreless in each of his first 12 outings, and going 1-0 with a 2.45 ERA in 15 total games.

The success didn’t happen by accident, as Rice would often be found late at night still working out in the Revolution clubhouse long after others had left, continuing to do all he could to get himself to the top of his profession.  A call that would end up changing Rice’s life came on June 6, as he was summoned into Etchebarren’s office and given the news that the Dodgers had purchased his contract. 

Rice was just as dominant in the Southern League where he spent the rest of last season with Double-A Chattanooga, his record an even 4-4, but his ERA a stellar 1.95, putting him on the Dodgers’ big league radar heading into the offseason.

The Dodgers thought highly enough of Rice to place him in big league camp, and he did not disappoint in his ten games, posting a 3.48 ERA and earning a save in 10.1 innings with only three walks and nine strikeouts this spring.  Removing one rough outing against the Brewers, he gave up just one run in his other 9.2 innings of work.

“I saw him pitch on TV this spring, and he looked really good,” said Mason.  “It was all downhill with his delivery with everything being beaten into the ground.  Same old Scotty.”

Despite all of the success this spring, it still came down to the 11th hour, and a final decision by Dodgers manager Don Mattingly.  Rice was locked in a virtual dead heat statistically with righty Josh Lindblom who pitched well in 27 big league games last season.  Lindblom’s experience may have been the deciding factor, as he was given the nod.  Still, Rice appears to be very much on Mattingly’s radar.

“It wasn’t an easy decision.  We went back and forth on it,” Mattingly told Quinn Roberts of MLB.com.  “Josh (Lindblom) pitched as good as anyone in camp.  He was a guy who really earned his spot, but I also expect to see Rice again.”

Rice was literally the 26th man, which unfortunately means he was also the first left off the big league roster.  But given the role of closer for the Triple-A club, he is about as close as can be, and will hopefully be the first one called upon once a spot on the big club opens up.

Adding to the sheer irony of the entire story is that whenever Rice may pull on that major league jersey for the first time, he’ll be putting on the jersey of the team that he grew up rooting for in southern California.

“This would obviously be a dream come true for me,” Rice told Joe McDonnell of Fox Sports West last week, before the decision had been made.  “I grew up here and I went to so many games at Dodger Stadium that it would be amazing if my first big league game was there.  It’s all pretty exciting.”

Rice did, in fact, toe the rubber at Chavez Ravine, as his final spring appearance came in the Freeway Series exhibition game against the Angels on Tuesday, but it’s a regular season trip to that same mound that Rice so craves.

Regardless of when it may occur, Rice has plenty of fans rooting for him including his manager from his most recent, and most successful Atlantic League stop.

“It shows that the system works and it shows the caliber of play in this league,” said Etchebarren.  “I thought last year that he was good enough to be in somebody’s bullpen in the major leagues then, and I’m really hoping that he’ll get the opportunity.”

Years before the Atlantic League began play, countless talented players saw their careers end far too soon for one reason or another.  An injury, the old “numbers game”, the age factor, or any number of circumstances.  Those were players who, given a second chance, may have made it back to the majors after having previously spent time at the game’s highest level, or may have realized their dream for all of one night.

Since Atlantic League stadiums first opened their gates in 1998, there have been 52 success stories where players who otherwise may have been forced out of the game have used the league as a springboard to put on a big league uniform.  Rice hopes to make 53.  He also hopes to become the eighth to go from the Atlantic League to the majors for the first time in his career.

Rice’s call-up would also represent a major milestone in the history of the Revolution, as only one other alum has gone from York to the majors, outfielder Tike Redman who started the 2007 season with York, and ended the year in the big leagues with Baltimore.

It’s been nearly 13 years since Rice signed his first pro contract as a first-round pick.  Still only 30 years of age, here’s hoping his Hollywood story is just getting started.

-DH

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