Ben Rice #93 of the New York Yankees works out...

Ben Rice #93 of the New York Yankees works out on the field before a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday, June 18, 2024 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Credit: Jim McIsaac

The Yankees possess the sport’s most dangerous offensive duo, their rotation has the lowest ERA in the majors — with Gerrit Cole still to make his debut — and also reached 50 wins faster than anyone in baseball.

So why then, only hours before the first pitch of Tuesday night’s AL East showdown with the Orioles, did things feel somewhat unsettled in the Bronx?

There’s a few reasons for that. At one end of the Yankees’ clubhouse, Anthony Rizzo spoke about his fractured forearm, an injury that is expected to cost him a minimum of two months. Shortly after, it was Rizzo’s fill-in, the freshly promoted Ben Rice, who detailed his hectic, last-minute dash to the Bronx. Then there was bullpen stalwart Ian Hamilton going on the IL, too.

Regardless of Rizzo’s struggles, swapping him on the fly for a 12th-round pick from Dartmouth with 11 games total of Triple-A experience was not how anyone preferred to put Rice in pinstripes for the first time. While his teammates were still arriving Tuesday, Rice was out at first base, taking some grounders, maybe convincing the club’s decision-makers to green-light him for that night’s series opener.

“The bright lights is the biggest challenge,” bench coach Brad Ausmus said. “And that’s part of having to learn how to slow the game down. I’m sure he’ll have nerves on defense because it’s not his primary position, but we have confidence that he’ll be fine over there.”

Oh right. Almost forgot. Ausmus was the acting manager Tuesday as the regular guy Aaron Boone was attending the high-school graduation of his son, Brandon. The expectation was that Boone would be back in the dugout at some point during the middle innings — “depending on New York City traffic,” Ausmus said — so that was another wrinkle to the Yankees’ workday. Probably not all that impactful, as Ausmus spent five years managing the Tigers and Angels (386-422), so he’s not green at the position. Just different, that’s all.

And this turbulent Tuesday was coming off a bumpy weekend at Fenway, where the Yankees dropped two of three and were run out of the building (nine stolen bases) in Sunday night’s humbling loss, broadcast nationally on ESPN. Did Alex Cora’s go-go Sox expose a defensive vulnerability for the AL powerhouse? Or was the meltdown on Jersey Street a one-time glitch easily corrected?

The Orioles likely would provide the answer sooner rather than later. Not necessarily a running team — Baltimore’s 50 stolen bases ranked 14th overall — the O’s still have guys that can run, most notably Cedric Mullins (13 SBs), Jorge Mateo (11) and Gunnar Henderson (9). Nobody enjoys antagonizing the Yankees like Cora, an old-school needler by nature, but that’s not to say more teams won’t exploit such a weakness, especially if the Yankees are going to be deploying a “work-in-progress” at first base, as Rice is a converted catcher still moving up the learning curve.

Rice doesn’t have the throw-over familiarity with the big-league staff, and as much as Rizzo looked creaky with the glove this season, he at least had experience in his favor. The Yankees decided to forego the more proven defensive option in DJ LeMahieu — for Tuesday anyway — in the hope that Rice’s bat would at least lengthen the lineup to a degree the other configurations did not.

It’s a leap of faith on the Yankees’ part, but going with Rice was really the only option to prevent the lineup’s bottom half from being a black hole. We’re not talking about a large sample size here. Rice hit .333 (14-for-42) with three homers and a 1.059 OPS in 11 games at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre after starting the season at Double-A Somerset (.261 BA, 12 HRs, .894 OPS in 49 games).

“I’m going to be a competitor,” Rice said when asked to describe himself. “Always be a tough at-bat.”

That’s what earned Rice the call-up, the plate tenacity to go with the power lefty-swing perfectly suited for rightfield’s short porch. For Tuesday, Rice was inserted in the No. 6 spot, dividing up Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres. From an offensive standpoint, Rice has a low bar to clear. Torres was hitting .222, Austin Wells .208 and LeMahieu a paltry .188 — not much of a supporting cast.

What did the Yankees have to lose by throwing Rice into the deep end? He really couldn’t do any worse. And maybe they find the kind of spark that 25-year-old rookies, hopped up on all that newbie adrenaline, can deliver at pivotal points of a long season.

At best, perhaps the Yankees discover their longer-term Rizzo replacement, as the three-time All-Star is almost certainly a goner after this year (with a $6M buyout on his $17M option for ’25). The broken forearm was another brutal injury for Rizzo coming off last season’s misdiagnosed concussion, and even though he anticipates a full recovery/return in the second half, his production on both sides of the ball had been trending in the wrong direction for a while now (.223 BA, .630 OPS in 70G).

“Not playing sucks,” Rizzo said.

For the Yankees, however, it was back to serious AL East business Tuesday. And an Orioles team with something to prove in the Bronx.


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