Wander gets props from Tatis, Vlad Jr., Acuña

June 24th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- A day after his highly anticipated and memorable Major League debut, said he couldn’t nail down the number of messages he received from people offering their congratulations and support. More than 100, he figured. Fewer than 1,000.

Some of those messages were from big league players, Franco said -- stars who are now officially among his peers. Four stood out, and it’s no surprise considering who sent them: Starling Marte, Fernando Tatis Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Ronald Acuña Jr.

“There was a lot of them that reached out,” Franco said Wednesday afternoon through interpreter Manny Navarro. “Tatis wrote out that it's just the beginning. Vladdy wrote out a post saying great job.”

Franco’s debut was still a topic of conversation at Tropicana Field heading into his second game, but all the talk wasn’t just about his game-tying three-run homer or the double he smashed to left field later in the game. Manager Kevin Cash raved about Franco’s first career plate appearance, in which he fell behind 0-2 and wound up walking, saying that was “as impressive as anything that he did.”

“A lot of us would have swung ourselves right into the ground. I know I would have,” Cash said. “I was excited to go back and look when the pitches came back up on the iPad, like just how far off were they? I mean, they were balls -- the umpire got it right -- but to show that type of discipline for a 20-year-old, we're fortunate to have him.”

Franco earned plenty of kudos for the heads-up double play he started in the eighth inning, too, especially considering he’s a natural shortstop who’s only recently learned to play third base.

“To have enough awareness, it just shows how talented he is physically, mentally, beyond his years,” Cash said. “And at that moment, it was the play of the game.”

Franco said he saw the video of his father celebrating his first home run and laughed, commenting only, “Yeah, he’s crazy.” Franco got to spend some time with his father after the game, talking about the game and his eventful debut. The 20-year-old infielder hardly displayed any nerves on his first day in the big leagues, but he acknowledged there was a slightly different feeling walking into Tropicana Field on Wednesday.

“I think we go in with the same amount of work and the same amount of energy as I normally do any other time I walk into the stadium,” Franco said. “I'm in control now this time. I already know what to expect now that I'm here on the second day.”

Franco was back in the lineup on Wednesday night, batting third against Red Sox righty Garrett Richards, and he continued to make an impact even without a big homer. Franco walked twice, lined out at 107.4 mph, struck out for the first time and helped create a run, hustling out of the box on a two-out grounder with a man on third in the second inning and forcing an errant throw from Red Sox second baseman Enrique Hernández.

“Give credit to Wander, for sure, not assuming anything. But that's kind of been a staple throughout this organization,” Cash said. “I think our coaches, our player development, our coordinators, they do such a good job of just harping on what you can control. And that's something you can control, just giving that hard 90 [feet], and that led to a run for us. It put enough pressure on the defense, and I'd like to think we've got guys that do that pretty regularly here. It was very nice to see Wander busting it out of the box.”

Franco leaves the Rays with an even more crowded infield picture. Cash said Tuesday that he would ideally like to have each infielder play five out of every six days, or six out of seven, although the lineup will change based on the opposing pitcher and which players need days off to rest.

The Rays can also utilize the versatility of their position player group. For instance, Brandon Lowe was initially scheduled to start in right field on Wednesday but moved to second base when Walls was scratched. That bumped Joey Wendle from second to third base, Franco from third to shortstop, Manuel Margot from center to right field and Brett Phillips from the bench to center. That flexibility also allows Cash to deploy his bench throughout the game.

“It'll just be on us, on myself, to communicate with the guys, like, it's not a demotion,” Cash said Tuesday. “It's a day off or not starting. Be ready to help us win later in the game.”

McHugh on a roll
Right-hander retired all nine batters he faced on Tuesday night, the longest perfect outing of his career and the longest perfect outing for a Rays pitcher since Blake Snell tossed five perfect innings on Aug. 10, 2018.

McHugh has been nearly flawless for the better part of two months, too, allowing just one earned run with 37 strikeouts in 24 innings over 13 appearances since returning from the 10-day injured list on May 4.

Is that enough to earn McHugh consideration for an expanded role, perhaps being stretched out to start? Or is it not worth messing with a good thing, which McHugh has certainly been in that flexible relief role?

“The little we've talked is he's kind of in a sweet spot right now. I mean, he is really throwing the ball well,” Cash said. “He tempts you by wanting to go a little further, but dealing with the most recent history of his arm issues and missing time, he might be best served in the role he's in right now. I think it's a conversation that we'll continue to revisit and discuss, but man, are we appreciative of the work that he's done basically all season now.”