Wander back, extends on-base streak to 40

Franco thrilled to return: 'I feel like it's like my debut'

September 25th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- Two days after the Rays punched their ticket to the postseason, they got rookie phenom back for the final stretch of the regular season.

Tampa Bay reinstated Franco from the 10-day injured list and optioned infielder Taylor Walls to Triple-A Durham prior to Friday night’s 8-0 victory over Miami at Tropicana Field. And Franco, the switch-hitting shortstop, picked up right where he left off two weeks ago. He worked a sixth-inning walk, which extended his historic on-base streak to 40 games, and added an eighth-inning double off catcher Sandy León.

"It is nice to have him back," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "He plays with a lot of energy and looked pretty healthy."

Franco missed the relatively subdued celebration in the Rays’ clubhouse after they clinched a playoff spot Wednesday night, but he did what he could on his own.

“I celebrated by myself,” Franco said through interpreter Manny Navarro, smiling. “This is my first year in the playoffs with the big team, so I'm just trying to get there already.”

For now, having Franco back in the lineup should be a big boost for the Rays, who began their final home series of the season with a 10-11 record in September after going 16-8 in July and 21-6 in August. Cash acknowledged that the Rays have missed the 20-year-old switch-hitter, who’s been sidelined since pulling his hamstring while running the bases Sept. 10 in Detroit.

“The on-base [ability] has been key, and I know it seems like he's setting records or breaking records every day for his age,” Cash said. “But there's a lot of other things. I mean, his ability to pick up big hits with guys on base -- he seems like he's shown a knack for really coming through in those crucial situations -- and his defense has progressively gotten better and better day by day, which is very encouraging.”

Franco said he was ready to continue his historic on-base streak, which remains the longest active on-base streak in the Majors despite his time on the shelf, and indeed he did. He went 0-for-3 with a strikeout in his first three plate appearances of the night, then worked a walk in the sixth inning, taking a full-count fastball from Marlins reliever Zach Thompson and jogging to first base.

Franco’s 40-game streak is the second longest in AL/NL history by a player 20 years old or younger, only three games shy of the all-time record set by Frank Robinson from May 26-July 7, 1956. The 20-year-old also broke a tie with Johnny Damon (2011) for the second-longest overall on-base streak in franchise history.

While the Rays have already clinched a spot in the playoffs for the third straight year, they still hope to secure their second straight American League East title in the coming days. They’ll also have to hold off the Astros to lock down the AL’s best record, guaranteeing themselves home-field advantage through the AL Championship Series.

All of that should be a little bit easier with Franco back in the fold. After finding his footing during his first few weeks in the Majors, Franco returned from the IL hitting .314/.376/.508 since the All-Star break. Overall, Tampa Bay is 41-21 when Franco plays. In their first 35 games with Franco and Nelson Cruz in the starting lineup together, the Rays averaged 6.4 runs per game.

Fortunately for the Rays, Franco healed quickly. Initial imaging revealed a low-grade strain in his muscle, but he was back to taking part in full on-field workouts at Tropicana Field only nine days after sustaining the injury. Tampa Bay sent him to join Triple-A Durham on Tuesday, and he played a three-inning simulated game when the Bulls were rained out on Wednesday.

“Actually, I feel like it's like my debut -- similar to that feeling -- so I'm ready to help the team win,” Franco said Friday afternoon via Navarro. “I feel 100 percent, and I'm still out here to play hard.”

On Thursday, Franco started at shortstop, went 0-for-1 with two walks and scored a run in Durham’s 2-1 win over Gwinnett. That was evidently enough for the Rays to deem him ready to go, so they recalled him Friday afternoon. Tampa Bay will finish its regular-season home schedule against Miami this weekend before embarking on a season-ending six-game road trip against the Astros and Yankees.

“No limitations,” Cash said. “I think, in his mind, he was hoping we were just going to activate him before he went to Durham, so that's a really good sign.”

Around the horn
• The Tampa Bay chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America on Friday presented catcher Mike Zunino with the Don Zimmer Most Valuable Player Award. The team MVP honor is one of three awards given near the end of each season by members of the local BBWAA chapter. Soot Zimmer, widow of Don Zimmer, was on hand at Tropicana Field to give the chapter's most prestigious award to Zunino.

Outfielder Randy Arozarena was named the club’s Outstanding Rookie, and infielder Joey Wendle received the Paul C. Smith Champion Award, given to the player who best exemplifies the spirit of true professionalism on and off the field.

• Cruz returned to the Rays' lineup on Friday after sitting out their last two games due to an illness.

• Reliever Matt Wisler (right middle finger inflammation) threw a bullpen session, is scheduled for another one on Sunday and could return for the Rays’ final road trip of the season.

• Rookie lefty Shane McClanahan will start Saturday night against the Marlins, and right-hander Shane Baz -- coming off a successful MLB debut against the Blue Jays -- will pitch the series finale on Sunday afternoon.