Yes, it set up a potential inning-ending double play for right-handed reliever Jimmy Lambert. And sure, it was theoretically a more favorable right-on-right matchup against Randy Arozarena than facing the switch-hitting Franco. But … have you seen what Arozarena has done lately?
“I kind of was in my mind like, 'Are you sure? You sure want to do this?'” McClanahan said.
Arozarena, meanwhile, was thrilled with the decision. After driving in the Rays’ first three runs on Saturday, the star outfielder slapped an RBI single to right field that scored pinch-runner Vidal Bruján, capped a 4-3 win over the White Sox and started Tampa Bay’s second consecutive walk-off celebration at Tropicana Field. For all Arozarena has already accomplished in his young career, it was his first walk-off plate appearance in the Majors.
“I was happy I was in that situation. I really hadn't been in a walk-off situation like that before,” Arozarena said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “It was my first time, but thank God I was able to get that hit.”
The hits have been coming easy this season for Arozarena, who has followed his sensational World Baseball Classic performance by hitting .350/.404/.575 with five homers and 22 RBIs in his first 20 games. The Rays praised his improved preparation and attention to detail as early as Spring Training, and they’re seeing it pay off now.
“I think it's helped him get off to such a good start,” manager Kevin Cash said. “That [last] at-bat right there, he just went up there almost like he had [a] slider in the back of his mind, or offspeed, and did not try to hit it to Randy Land. He just tried to hit it somewhere on the turf.”
Arozarena led the Rays’ lineup on Saturday, extending their record-setting home run streak to 21 games with a two-run shot off Dylan Cease in the first inning, and then slapping an RBI single to left in the fifth before delivering the walk-off knock.
When asked about the decision to walk Franco and bring up Arozarena, White Sox manager Pedro Grifol simply said the club “liked the Lambert-Arozarena matchup, so we’re good with it.”
So were the Rays.
“When he's locked in, this is what he does,” said reliever Pete Fairbanks, who extended his scoreless streak to a franchise-record 28 innings (breaking J.P. Howell’s mark of 27 1/3 IP) by pitching a scoreless ninth. “He, I think, used the WBC to kind of jump-start himself, and then he has not stopped since then.”
Arozarena has played a big part in the Rays’ 18-3 record-setting start, which continued with Saturday’s victory. They’ve gone deep in each of their first 21 games, surpassing the 2019 Mariners’ 20-game run for the longest season-opening home run streak in AL/NL history.
Combined with the pair of homers they hit in last year’s final regular-season game, Tampa Bay also established a new all-time franchise mark by going deep in 22 consecutive games, topping the previous record of 21 set from Sept. 20, 2015-April 12, 2016.
The Rays also remained undefeated at home this season, matching the longest home winning streak in club history with a 12-0 run that’s now tied (with the 1911 Tigers and 1884 Gothams) for the sixth-longest such streak to start a season in MLB history.
“Everyone's just doing their part. We're all supporting each other,” Arozarena said through Navarro. “We've just got to keep [playing] that way. Regardless of the records or not, it's just a good way to stay hot.”
As hot as Arozarena has been at the plate, that’s how scorching McClanahan has been on the mound.
The left-hander struck out 10 and recorded a franchise-record 32 swinging strikes (on 49 swings), allowing only three hits (including two solo homers) and one walk over six innings. McClanahan used everything in his four-pitch arsenal, but his changeup (14 whiffs) was effective playing off a fastball that averaged 96.8 mph.
Jason Adam allowed a game-tying, pinch-hit homer to Gavin Sheets in the eighth, costing McClanahan a chance to join Matt Moore as the only pitchers in Rays history to start a season by winning each of their first five starts, but the 25-year-old left-hander is still 4-0 with a 1.86 ERA, 37 strikeouts and 12 walks in 29 innings after five outings.
“It was awesome,” McClanahan said. “They had my back after giving up those solo home runs, and Randy played a hell of a game.”