Rice returns for one more run with Toppers

Senior catcher Matt Rice has been playing on the baseball field since T-ball in Johnson City, Tenn. But last year during the 2010 first-year player draft, Rice was drafted by the New York Yankees. “It was a cool expereince…but I was excited about playing here at Western It was just cool to say you’ve been drafted by the Yankees, you know, everyone knows the Yankees. But it wasn’t a good opportunity to go out my last year. I felt that this year would be a better opportunity.”

Brad Stephens

It’s easy to pick out Matt Rice on a baseball field.

The WKU senior is one of the few hitters in college baseball that swings his aluminum bat without batting gloves.

He also plays catcher, a position not usually filled by lanky players who weigh 195 pounds.

And when it comes to his performance on the field, not many players in the Sun Belt Conference have the offensive and defensive abilities of Rice.

Selected by the New York Yankees with the last overall pick in the 2010 MLB draft, Rice decided to come back to WKU for his senior year.

He said the leadership of Head Coach Chris Finwood and his love for the university were deciding factors in his return.

And his coach was more than happy to have him for another year.

“Matt Rice is everything you want in a college baseball player,” Finwood said. “He does everything right. Getting that guy back to anchor your defense and your lineup is a big shot in the arm for us.”

Rice earned All-Sun Belt honors after posting a .369 batting average, 10 home runs and 65 RBIs in 2010.

The year before, Rice hit .399 and set school records for longest hitting streak (31 games) and hits in a season (101).

And Rice has saved his best performances for big games.

He went 5-for-5 with a home run, three RBIs and two runs scored in a come-from-behind, 10-9 victory against Mississippi in a 2009 NCAA Regional game.

Rice also came up big for the Toppers in their landmark 24-8 win over Kentucky last April at Bowling Green Ballpark, going 5-for-6 with a home run and three RBIs.

WKU sophomore pitcher Tanner Perkins said that from a pitcher’s perspective, there’s no easy way to pitch to Rice.

“He’s so hard to get out,” Perkins said. “If you miss by an inch, he’ll hurt you. I don’t think there’ll be many pitchers that keep him off the bases this year.”

Finwood said Rice’s hand-eye coordination and strength make him an effective power hitter.

“His eyes just work good,” Finwood said. “Even when he swings at bad pitches he gets the barrel on them. And he’s pretty strong in his hands and forearms so he generates good bat speed.”

While Rice is known for his performance at the plate, he has been just as good working behind it.

He committed just two errors in 2010 and threw out nearly 30 percent of potential base-stealers.

“I take a lot of pride in my defense,” Rice said. “While getting hits helps the team win, commanding the pitchers and putting our team in a position to win defensively is equally, if not more important.”

While most Topper fans know about Rice’s hitting and defense, not many know how seriously he takes academics.

Rice was named to the ESPN The Magazine Academic All-America Third Team in 2009.

He plans to graduate in May with a degree in mechanical engineering.

“Obviously, I want to continue my baseball career as long as possible,” Rice said. “We’ll see where baseball takes me, but that’s a great major to fall back on in case that doesn’t work out.”

In addition to earning accolades in the classroom and on the field, Rice said he wants to work on his clubhouse leadership.

Perkins said that Rice and junior pitcher Rye Davis, who was also drafted last summer but decided to come back, have taken roles as team leaders.

“This year the leaders have had more of a role on the team,” Perkins said. “If we want the coaches to know something, we go to them, and then the coaches report through them.”

Rice’s senior season officially starts at 3 p.m. Friday, when WKU takes the field against Bowling Green State.

He said he’s expecting big things in his last season at WKU.

“I think we have the tools in place to make a good postseason run this year,” Rice said. “I’m excited about what we’ve got.”