Wander laughs at prank, parks 'really far' from boss' spot

March 19th, 2022

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- First things first:  did not back his white Range Rover into president of baseball operations Erik Neander’s reserved space again Saturday morning.

Or anywhere near it, apparently.

“I parked really far away this time,” Franco said through interpreter Manny Navarro.

Franco smiled and laughed as he answered a few questions about the prank manager Kevin Cash pulled on Friday morning. No, the 21-year-old shortstop didn’t realize he took his baseball boss’ assigned parking spot. Yes, he was initially baffled when his car came rolling out onto the outfield grass at Charlotte Sports Park during the Rays’ workout on Friday morning, wondering, “What’s going on? That’s my car!”

And yes, he got a kick out of the whole thing, too.

“It was just a confusion,” Franco said. “Honestly, I didn't know that that was his spot. But I had fun with it. … If everyone is happy, then I'm also happy. That just helps everybody.”

Franco was also thrilled to get back on the field with nearly all the Rays’ regular position players in the club’s Spring Training home opener Saturday afternoon, a 4-4 tie against the Braves. Batting second between Brandon Lowe and Austin Meadows, Franco went 0-for-2 with a flyout and a groundout and helped turn two double plays in the first two innings.

The Rays are two games into a compressed Grapefruit League schedule, with only 17 exhibitions remaining before their Opening Day game April 8 against the Orioles at Tropicana Field, but the abbreviated buildup to the season doesn’t seem to concern Franco. The switch-hitting savant said he’ll only need about four or five games, if he sees enough pitches, before he’s ready for the real deal.

“It's a marvelous feeling to be back out there,” Franco said. “We're here, and we're ready to go.”

Aside from center fielder Kevin Kiermaier sitting out and a group of Minor League Spring Training pitchers taking the mound, the Rays’ lineup at Charlotte Sports Park looked like one they could very well roll out in three weeks. Ji-Man Choi, Lowe, Franco and Yandy Díaz lined up around the infield in their spring debuts, with Mike Zunino behind the plate. Meadows, Brett Phillips and Randy Arozarena manned the outfield, with Manuel Margot starting as the designated hitter.

“It’s nice. We’ll fully use these three weeks to get ready and try to get where we want to be, but guys seem to be in a good spot,” Zunino said. “Today was pretty cool, seeing everybody in there and just sort of seeing the dynamic that we could have. … It’s nice to see everybody come in prepared, hungry and ready to go for the season.”

Zunino goes deep
Picking up right where he left off during his 33-homer campaign last season, Zunino launched a two-run homer to left field with two outs in the second inning of Saturday’s game.

The blast seemed to even surprise Zunino, who has been so busy with his defensive work -- catching bullpen and live batting practice sessions to gain familiarity with Tampa Bay’s staff -- that he hasn’t had much time to face live pitching himself. He took a few pitches in his first at-bat of Spring Training, just to get a feel for Braves right-hander Jackson Stephens, then unloaded on a 2-2 breaking ball.

“It’s just so much trying to control what I’m doing in the box right now,” Zunino said. “Results are great, but I hope it cools down. I want to save some of those for the season.”

Game highlights
• With the Rays deliberately building up their big league arms for game action, right-hander Phoenix Sanders came over from Minor League camp to start Saturday’s game and pitched two scoreless innings.

Sanders was excellent for Triple-A Durham last season, posting a 3.38 ERA and 0.91 WHIP with 80 strikeouts in 64 innings over 50 appearances. A 10th-round pick out of the University of South Florida in the 2017 MLB Draft, Sanders presumably would have been a non-roster invitee -- as he was the last two years -- if not for the compressed schedule and smaller roster this spring. So he took advantage of the opportunity to get back in a Grapefruit League game.

“Any opportunity over here is always a good one, throwing in front of, you could argue, the best staff in the game right now,” Sanders said. “It’s always a blessing and an opportunity that everyone tries to take advantage of, so today was a good day.”

• Minor League shortstop Tristan Gray ripped an RBI triple to right field in the sixth inning, another big league Spring Training highlight for the 25-year-old left-handed hitter acquired for Corey Dickerson four years ago. Gray went 9-for-33 with three homers last spring, leaving an impression on the big league staff that he reinforced Saturday.

“Tristan Gray can flat-out hit,” Cash said. “He does a lot of things really well.”

Up next
Relief prospect Colby White, who pitched for all four of Tampa Bay’s full-season Minor League affiliates last year, is scheduled to start for the Rays as they head south Sunday afternoon to play the Twins in Fort Myers. Phillips, Taylor Walls, Josh Lowe and Rene Pinto are expected to be in the lineup.

First pitch is scheduled for 1:05 p.m. ET. The radio call will be available on WDAE 95.3 FM/620 AM and the Rays Radio Network.