Ozzie's glove + Bonds' bat = Wander?

That's the comparison Boston's Bogaerts made after Franco's first multihomer game

April 23rd, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG -- There is a running joke in the Rays’ dugout whenever Wander Franco does something special, hitting coach Chad Mottola said earlier this week. When Franco knocks his third hit of the night or crushes another ball with elite exit velocity, someone will turn to Franco’s teammates and ask, “Why can't you guys do this?”

But baseball is not as easy as the 21-year-old phenom often makes it look.

Franco checked another Major League “first” off his list in Friday night's 4-3 loss to the Red Sox at Tropicana Field, smashing two solo home runs off right-hander Michael Wacha for his first multihomer game in the big leagues. He made another incredible running catch that stood out to some teammates even more than the pair of home runs.

The blend of both talents consistently thrills the Rays. On this night, it mystified Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts.

“Ozzie Smith with the glove, Barry Bonds with the bat,” Bogaerts proclaimed. “I don’t know. He’s unbelievable. … He’s ridiculous.”

Franco’s performance made him the youngest player in franchise history with a multihomer game, at 21 years and 52 days old. He also became the third-youngest player in Major League history with a multihomer game against the Red Sox, behind only Al Kaline (20 years, 185 days) on June 22, 1955, and Mickey Mantle (20 years, 296 days) on Aug. 11, 1952.

Franco’s first shot came with one out in the first inning, when he jumped on a high first-pitch fastball from Wacha -- his teammate with the Rays last season -- and slammed it on a line into the right-field seats to cut Boston’s two-run lead in half.

“He's a good friend,” Franco, smiling, said of Wacha through interpreter Manny Navarro. “But I don't think he expected what ended up happening.”

The first home run boomed off Franco’s bat at 109.7 mph, according to Statcast, tied for his hardest-hit ball in the Majors. Two plate appearances later, he broke his own personal record.

With two outs in the fifth inning, Franco took a first-pitch changeup from Wacha for a strike. He unloaded on the next offering, a high-and-inside cutter at 90.4 mph, and got every bit of it. Franco hammered the ball at 112.4 mph, the highest exit velocity of his big league career, and kept it inside the right-field foul pole to make it a 4-2 game.

“The confidence is way up there,” Franco said through Navarro. “Thank God, I'm doing everything I can with my routine and doing everything I can for the team.”

For all he accomplished as a prospect, Franco only had a pair of two-homer games in the Minors: July 14, 2018, for Rookie-level Princeton; and April 25, 2019, for then-Class A Bowling Green. He ended Friday’s game hitting .393 with three homers, 10 RBIs and 11 runs scored. Franco began the game tied for the Major League lead in hits and multihit games, and he has now recorded multiple hits in eight of his 13 games this season.

“He's just really impressive, the way he can get to pitches, and he rifles two balls down the line for home runs,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “He's swinging the bat well.”

Franco's doing a lot more than that, too, as he reminded everyone in the sixth inning. With one out, Red Sox catcher Christian Vázquez hit a high popup toward Boston’s bullpen down the left-field line. Franco hustled back and to the right of where he was lined up, thinking, “I've got to do everything I can to get there.”

He did. Franco reached a maximum sprint speed of 28.6 feet per second, just below the “elite” mark of 30 feet per second, and covered 94 feet to snag the ball near the foul line.

“What he's doing with the bat underscores a lot with what he's done with the glove lately. It's fun to watch him play. He brings a ton of energy,” Rays catcher Mike Zunino said. “I mean, he's a superstar in this game. He's going to be. And he's staying extremely humble and working hard, and it's fun to watch good things happen to him.”

“I think he does something every day that -- I guess I shouldn't say surprises us, at this point, but something pretty impressive every day,” said veteran starter Corey Kluber, who battled through five innings to keep the Rays in the game despite allowing four runs on 11 hits.

Even in the ninth inning, everyone in the building expected something great from Franco. Down by one after chipping one run off the Red Sox’s lead in the seventh, the Rays grinded out at-bats against left-hander Jake Diekman. Taylor Walls, Manuel Margot and Zunino walked, and Brandon Lowe struck out to bring up Franco with two outs, the bases loaded and Matt Barnes trotting in from the bullpen.

A spectacular play unfolded, sure enough, but it went against Franco. Second baseman Trevor Story slid to his left and snagged Franco’s 100.9 mph grounder and fired it to first for the final out, leaving the Rays one run short.

Considering everything else he did, who would have been surprised by another big moment from Franco?

“I made good contact,” Franco said through Navarro. “I was hoping to get through, but it didn't.”