6-3 putouts don't come any cooler than Wander flipping ball to himself

May 4th, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG -- Sometimes, makes it look easy.

That was especially true during the Rays’ 8-1 win over the Pirates on Wednesday at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay’s star shortstop finished the night 2-for-5 with two RBIs, three runs scored, the longest home run of his career and a couple defensive highlights -- including one play so casual, it looked like something he might practice hours before first pitch.

With a runner on third base and two outs in the seventh inning, Pirates outfielder Bryan Reynolds smacked a 103.2 mph one-hopper back up the middle. Franco was perfectly positioned to field the ball, then he had enough time to transfer the ball to his right hand and flip it to himself before firing a throw to first baseman that beat Reynolds by two steps.

“Did he just do that?” color analyst Brian Anderson said during the Rays’ telecast. “He tossed the ball up to himself.”

Indeed, he did. Franco tossed the ball, with a little backspin on it, before completing the play. In the broadcast booth, Rays play-by-play commentator Dewayne Staats wondered aloud if Franco should be credited with two assists on the groundout.

“I mess around in practice. Sometimes I tend to do that at practice,” Franco said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “Through instincts, I think it just happened.”

"I appreciate it because now, as soon as I get home, I know my son, J.D., is going to look at me and tell me to go out there and practice that play with him. Unfortunately, I won't be able to do that," Rays manager Kevin Cash said Thursday morning. "I can't relate to the amount of confidence that Wander plays with. It's pretty special."

Franco kept his personal highlight reel rolling immediately after that play, as he just so happened to lead off the bottom of the seventh against Pittsburgh right-hander Cody Bolton. Franco took two changeups for strikes then unloaded on a 95 mph fastball, sending it a Statcast-projected 425 feet out to center field to put the Rays up, 7-1.

It was Franco’s sixth home run of the season and the longest of his young career, according to Statcast, surpassing a 418-foot shot he hit against the Braves on July 18, 2021. It was also Franco’s 18th extra-base hit of the season, second-most in the Majors behind only Matt Chapman’s 20.

"He’s good. There’s not a lot he can’t do,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “The way he swings the bat, the way he runs -- he’s a really good player, and they did a really nice job signing him up to make sure he’s a Ray for a long time."