ST. PETERSBURG -- Wander Franco didn’t need his glove to pull off one of the early candidates for catch of the year.
Leading off against rookie starter Taj Bradley in the fifth inning of the Rays’ 8-3 win over the Astros on Monday night at Tropicana Field, Houston catcher Martín Maldonado lofted a fly ball into foul territory down the left-field line. Franco dashed from his position at shortstop toward the visitors’ bullpen, sprinting to cover 96 feet.
With his back to the infield and the ball falling toward the turf, Franco left his feet and stretched both arms toward the foul line. The ball didn’t land in Franco’s glove, but in his bare right hand.
Just like he drew it up, right? Not so much.
“In all reality, I couldn’t reach it,” Franco said with a grin through interpreter Manny Navarro. “I tried all I could with my glove, and my hand just happened to be there and it fell right into it.
“I couldn't believe it myself, but I caught it.”
Franco said he’d never made an over-the-shoulder catch quite like that before. And it was “just pure instincts” that his right hand was in the perfect position to make the catch when he fell short with his glove.
“I just had my hand out there,” he said through Navarro, “and I just reacted.”
Tampa Bay’s 22-year-old phenom raised the ball in the air as his feet hit the ground and he spun around, grinning from ear to ear after his latest must-see highlight. His teammates reacted, too, with shock and awe.
“That was sick, man,” Bradley said. “I was looking in the air, it's like it's hanging up there for a long time. He's hauling, and then he comes up with it. … When you're on the mound and it's like your out that's going to be recorded, that means everything.”
“It was a great play. It was incredible,” left fielder Randy Arozarena said through Navarro. “He was obviously able to make the catch barehanded, and that's probably going to be the top play of the day.”
The play felt a bit familiar for at least one person in the building Monday night: Astros manager Dusty Baker, who was the Giants’ hitting coach in 1989 when Kevin Mitchell made his unforgettable barehanded catch down the left-field line at Busch Stadium.
"Last time I saw that was when Kevin Mitchell did it when I was in San Francisco. That was a tough play,” Baker said. “That was a really tough play, even to catch it, get up to it and then he overran it. I guess that's just a natural reaction with your other hand."
As incredible as Franco’s grab may have been, it was just one way that the switch-hitting shortstop dazzled the Rays in the series opener. Franco finished with a career-high-tying four hits, including two doubles, while scoring two runs and driving one in -- and stealing his fifth base of the season, for good measure.
After 22 games, the former top prospect in baseball is slashing .318/.388/.580 with 15 extra-base hits, 14 RBIs -- and one barehanded catch we’ll be seeing for a long time.
“Wander is just a very talented player,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “The catch, the amount of ground that he covered, and then I can't tell if he caught it barehanded by design or his glove just couldn't go any farther that way and the hand was there to help. But we'll take it. He was excited.”