Rays’ Ben Rortvedt will return home to Wisconsin with new lease on career

ST. PETERSBURG — Ben Rortvedt doesn’t have to send his mom a birthday card this year. The Rays catcher will be able to hand it to her and celebrate the occasion with a large group of family and friends next week.

For the first time as a major-leaguer, Rortvedt will have the chance to return to his native Wisconsin and play in the park where he watched Brewers games as a boy when the Rays visit American Family Field for a three-game series Monday-Wednesday.

Most importantly to Rortvedt’s mom, Kim, he will be there Wednesday to help celebrate her birthday.

“She’s really excited. I think she thinks it was set up just for her,” Rortvedt said with a laugh.

That is a mom’s prerogative, and certainly there is plenty for the family to celebrate right now.

After Rortvedt spent the majority of spring training with the Yankees, wondering what his future would hold, he found a quick fit after being traded to the Rays.

With the team missing its two best left-handed hitters with Josh Lowe and Brandon Lowe on the injured list, Rortvedt’s bat has been something of a lifeline for a struggling offense.

In Wednesday’s 7-5 win over the Tigers, Rortvedt’s RBI double started a three-run second inning. Then, after the Rays blew an early three-run lead, Rortvedt hit a run-scoring single in the sixth to tie the game and set the stage for Curtis Mead’s go-ahead, two-run homer.

It’s what the Rays have come to expect from the 26-year-old Rortvedt.

“He’s been pretty incredible,” manager Kevin Cash said. “For us. I mean, a guy that we acquired that we really liked his defense, and everything that we could get offensively was an added bonus.

“But the way that he comes up with guys on base, it seems like every series he is impacting us with a big RBI knock. I mean, I just appreciate his efforts.”

For his part, Rortvedt appreciates the chance he is getting to play with the Rays.

Acquired by the Yankees from the Twins in the 2022 trade that sent struggling Gary Sanchez to Minnesota, Rortvedt’s two seasons with New York were beset by injuries. His strong receiving skills allowed him to become the personal catcher for Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole by the end of the 2023 season, but his lack of offense had him battling veteran Jose Trevino and the Yankees’ catcher of the future, Austin Wells, for a job.

Hitting .118 in 32 games last season and with no options remaining to return to the minors, Rortvedt found himself the odd-man out. He sat in a Houston hotel room as the Yankees prepared to start the season against the Astros until the Rays pulled off the March 27 trade.

When he arrived back in Tampa Bay, where he previously had purchased a home near the Yankees’ spring training facility, Rortvedt said he appreciated the opportunity the Rays were giving him.

While he quickly earned praise from the pitching staff, Rortvedt showed, too, he is a more than just a defensive player.

He enters this weekend’s series against the White Sox in Chicago hitting .333 with a .417 on-base percentage and .822 OPS. His 14 hits (including three doubles) and seven RBIs in 15 games already are more than he had all of last season (8 hits, 4 RBIs) with the Yankees. He has hit safely in nine of his 13 starts and reached base in 11.

And, as Cash said, Rortvedt seems to blossom in big moments. After getting just one hit in 12 at-bats with runners in scoring position last year, he is 4-for-12 with a double and six RBIs in those situations this season.

“I feel good,” Rortvedt said of being in those spots. “I’m just trying to help the team win, just trying to stay in the strike zone, put a good spin on the ball and not try not to do too much.”

Rortvedt appreciates the chance he will have next week to play in front of hometown family and friends after narrowly missing out on the experience earlier in his career.

While with the Twins, he was called up later in the season, after they had played in Milwaukee. With the Yankees, he missed the trip to American Family Field by one day.

“It will be great to be home,” said Rortvedt, who will get to play against childhood friend and former teammate Owen Miller, an infielder with the Brewers. “I love that park, and it will be great to see my mom on her birthday. It’s worked out well for us.”

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