'Special' Franco propels Rays into first

Baseball's top prospect brings home 2 as Tampa Bay passes Red Sox atop AL East

August 1st, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- slid headfirst into third base, stared into the Rays’ dugout, pumped his right fist six times and slammed his hand on the bag once. The game’s top prospect had just put Tampa Bay on top in another duel with Boston, one that ended with the Rays back atop the American League East.

Franco fired up his teammates with another energetic display of emotion after his RBI single in the eighth, turning toward the dugout and pounding his chest. It was a big game for the 20-year-old rookie, and he knew the significance of the Rays’ 9-5 win over the Red Sox on Saturday night before a season-high attendance of 20,521 at Tropicana Field.

• Box score

The victory vaulted the Rays a half-game ahead of the Red Sox and gave them sole possession of first place in the AL East for the first time since the end of play on June 26.

“It was for the team, definitely for the team,” Franco said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “We knew we were close to first place, so it was for the team.”

Saturday’s matchup felt like a big game -- one full of early lead changes, long at-bats and high-leverage moments. Franco came through in two of them, roping a tiebreaking triple off Nathan Eovaldi in the sixth -- his first go-ahead hit in the Majors -- and an eighth-inning single that provided some breathing room for Tampa Bay’s bullpen.

Franco’s at-bat in the sixth inning was particularly impressive. He fell behind Eovaldi, 0-2, then worked his way back into the count and fouled off two tough offspeed pitches. He turned on a full-count splitter down and in, sending it down the right-field line and hustling all the way to third base as Joey Wendle scored from first.

“I feel very good,” Franco said. “Thank God I was able to see and get a pitch that I was able to handle and help out the team the best way I can.”

Franco has had some challenging moments while adjusting to Major League competition -- no surprise for any player, much less a 20-year-old who has rarely struggled -- but his immense talent has been on display the last two nights. He doubled and tripled Friday night, drove in two runs Saturday and has gone 16-for-56 (.286) with six extra-base hits and seven RBIs in 14 games since the All-Star break.

“He's really talented. He's just a special player. He's doing things at age 20, which is just mind-boggling to me,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Give Wander a lot of credit. I don't know if he's ever hit .250 at any level for a month, and he's done it. He's kept his head above water. And now he's getting really hot.”

But as is often the case for the Rays, this win was a team effort. Brandon Lowe doubled and scored two runs. Ji-Man Choi hit a two-run homer in the first inning. And Francisco Mejía delivered two clutch hits: a two-run homer off Eovaldi in the fourth and a two-run single in the eighth that gave the Rays a comfortable lead.

Sharing starts behind the plate with Mike Zunino, Mejía went 13-for-41 with eight extra-base hits and nine RBIs in July. He said the Rays have helped him learn how to handle a role that comes without everyday playing time, and he has been working lately with hitting coach Chad Mottola to develop a more patient approach.

“That's [the kind of] team that we are,” Mejía said through Navarro. “Everybody's going to participate one way or another to be able to get this win, and everybody contributed one way or another.”

That’s especially true for the Rays’ bullpen, which worked four scoreless innings Saturday even as its personnel continues to evolve due to an incomprehensible number of injuries.

Andrew Kittredge took over for starter Ryan Yarbrough in the sixth and worked his way into, then out of, trouble. After striking out J.D. Martinez to win a 10-pitch battle, Kittredge walked Xander Bogaerts and Alex Verdugo (intentionally) with a Hunter Renfroe double in between to load the bases. But Kittredge bounced back, striking out Christian Vázquez (after falling behind, 3-0) and Bobby Dalbec (on three pitches) to strand all three runners and keep the game knotted at 5.

With one out and a runner on first in the seventh, Rafael Devers dropped a bunt to the open left side of the infield. While Jeffrey Springs was running to retrieve the ball near third base, the lefty reliever’s right knee buckled before he fell to the ground, grabbing his knee in obvious pain.

The Rays were encouraged to see Springs walk off the field under his own power after exiting the game with what the team announced as a right knee sprain. But it was a scary moment for a club that already has 14 pitchers -- including 11 relievers -- on the injured list. Cash said Springs is “highly likely” to join that group Sunday.

Matt Wisler entered in relief of Springs and, after intentionally walking Bogaerts to load the bases, escaped by striking out Renfroe with a full-count slider. Wisler worked a clean eighth before the Rays pulled further ahead of the Red Sox and, at the end of the night, into first place.

With 105 games in the books, the Rays are right where they want to be. Now, all they have to do is stay there another two months, right?

“That's the plan,” Cash said. “We knew coming in this is going to be a big homestand for us. We’ve got to be happy that we've kind of reset it here with two wins after losing the first two ballgames and then coming back to be in this position. We'll keep going and know we have another big game tomorrow night.”