Managers and batters talk about hanging a crooked number on the board when their team is hitting.
But as far as right-hander Jason Rice is concerned, he’s hung a nice round number on the board – or in this case, his stat sheet.
Rice, who morphed into the Portland Sea Dogs’ closer last season, has pitched 457 2/3 minor league innings and has struck out an even 500 batters – while allowing only 376 hits.
Roll that 500 number around in your mind and the temptation is to ask if Rice blows out radar guns or if he has impeccable control?
“It’s a little bit of both,” said new Pawtucket Red Sox manager Arnie Beyeler who was Rice’s skipper last season at Portland. “He’s got a good arm. He throws 95 miles an hour and he’s got a pretty good breaking pitch, too. And he can throw a changeup.
“He’s a shorter guy (Rice checks in at 5-10) and he gets guys to chase balls up in the zone. He can throw the ball by guys up there because it comes out of the same (arm) slot as his breaking ball.
“He’s probably one of the hardest working pitchers we have,” continued Beyeler. “He continues to work hard and get better. He’s a young kid with a good arm which is why we went and got him.”
Rice, who turns 25 on May 31, was drafted in the 11th round of the 2005 draft by the Chicago White Sox. But when the White Sox left him unprotected, Boston swooped in and selected him in the Triple-A phase of the 2008 Rule 5 Draft.
“Jason has performed consistently since joining the Red Sox organization,” said Mike Hazen, who recently was promoted from director of player development to vice president of player development and amateur scouting. “He gets swings and misses and really limits hits. He features a strong arm that lights up the radar gun with mid-to-upper 90s velocity that would play at the highest level.
“Even with his plus velocity, his successful transition (last year) to Double A was related to the hard work he put into improving his fastball and the command of his off-speed pitches.”
In his first season at the Double-A level, Rice made a team-high 48 appearances (all in relief) and was 3-2 with 13 saves, which tied for third in Boston’s farm system.
He also posted a 2.95 ERA replete with a near-microscopic .211 OBA and 71 strikeouts plus only 45 hits in 60 innings. And, not surprisingly, he was voted to the Eastern League’s mid-season All-Star Team.
What’s interesting is that Rice was a catcher long before he converted to pitching.
“I actually was a catcher in high school,” Rice said of his career at Fontana (California) High. “I started pitching a little bit in my junior and senior year and I caught mostly in college (Chaffey Community College in San Bernardino).
“I pitched a little bit, maybe 16 or 17 innings, yet I got drafted as a pitcher by the White Sox.”
Go figure, but apparently, the White Sox saw something in Rice’s right arm that enticed them to spend a draft pick – until they cut him loose.
“Actually, that’s something which really isn’t in my control,” said Rice. “All I can do is play hard and work hard. The biggest thing was making the adjustment coming from one organization to another one.
“The Red Sox were gracious enough to have selected me and I fell in love with the organization. If it’s my choice, I’d love to stay here for my whole career.”
The Red Sox, in turn, began falling in love with Rice during his first year (2009) in their organization, at Class-A Salem. He was 1-3 with a 2.44 ERA in 41 games with only 38 hits allowed and 94 strikeouts in 70 innings.
“When I was with the White Sox, I bounced back and forth from a starter to a reliever to a closer in the few years I was there,” said Rice. “I kind of found a consistent delivery throwing out of the stretch. But when I first got drafted, they told me I would be a middle reliever-type guy and pitch in the back end of the bullpen, which is what I’ve been doing since I’ve been with the Red Sox.
“I’ve been pretty successful at it but a lot of it is about changing speeds. It’s not always about velocity. It’s about pitching to your strengths. For example, I learned to watch a batter’s hips because that will tell you what he wants to do.”
What Rice had to do when he moved to the Red Sox , as he previously alluded to, was navigate baseball’s version of a speed bump which occurs when a player – especially a pitcher – goes to a new organization.
“Most definitely you’re not going to play this game going free of speed bumps,” said Rice. “This game is too tough physically, mentally and even sometimes emotionally. But the biggest part of the Red Sox and my coming here is starting all over and setting a new foundation from my whole pitching standpoint.
“It’s been amazing. I hope to keep progressing and keep learning and hopefully one day get up there with those big boys (i.e. major leaguers) and learn from them.”
One thing Rice has learned is he relishes being a closer, a role he may play on an occasional basis with Pawtucket.
“It’s awesome to be a so-called closer,” he said. “But I feel I’m another pitcher no matter if I’m a starter or a middle reliever. You still have to go out there. The only thing that defines a closer is you have to get the last three outs which, as you know, can be the toughest outs to get in a game.
“Sometimes you come in with runners on base, or you might have a clean inning. You never know what kind of night you’ll have. You have to be ready to pitch every night because this game could be a very close game or it could be a wide-spread game.
“You have to go out there,” added Rice, “and compete every day. The biggest part is mental. You have to prepare to stay mentally sound and throw strikes and give your team the best chance to win a ballgame.”
That’s something Rice has proven to be quite adept at doing since he came to the Red Sox.
“When he’s on the field he’s always working,” said Beyeler. “”He’s always working on his delivery. Maybe he’s working on his pickoff move. Maybe it’s something to help out his whole game. Every day he comes to the park with a purpose and you get to see the end result because the guy continues to improve.
“Last year he was a two-inning guy most of the time. But, for the most part, when it was a closing situation, he came in. If it was one inning, fine. If it was one inning and change, fine. He threw every couple of days.
“He was kind of regimented where he came in and got an inning-plus of work,” continued Beyeler, “or at least a solid inning of work with the game on the line.”
Games that, more often than not, wound up in the win column for the Sea Dogs.