Wander's here: 'Never seen anything like this'

June 23rd, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- had been waiting his entire life for Tuesday night. He’s been playing under the sport’s spotlight since he was a young teenager, so he’s past the point of feeling pressure. The 20-year-old infielder said he was “born to hit.” And when he finally arrived in the Major Leagues, Franco wasted no time showing off the skills that made him baseball’s best prospect.

Franco ripped a game-tying three-run homer to left field off Red Sox lefty Eduardo Rodriguez in the fifth inning of his Major League debut at Tropicana Field, the first hit -- and memorable moment -- of many to come for the Rays’ switch-hitting infielder. He smashed a double in the seventh and made a heads-up play in the eighth, revving up a crowd that cheered just a little bit louder than usual from the moment he emerged from the dugout for his pregame stretch and later demanded a curtain call from the team’s newest young star.

Franco’s sensational debut wasn’t enough to stop the Rays’ losing skid, however, nor did his arrival slow their struggles in extra innings. Tampa Bay went quiet at the plate after Franco’s big homer and lost to the Red Sox, 9-5, in 11 innings. The Rays have lost seven straight games, their longest losing streak since dropping eight in a row from May 31-June 8, 2018, and they are now 3-9 in extra-inning games this season.

“Pretty electric player. I wish we would have somehow got a win, because it would have been a large part for his contributions,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “You never forget that big league debut. He checked a lot of boxes tonight.”

Let’s review them.

• A mature approach at the plate? Yes. Stepping up to the plate for the first time in the first inning, Franco received a standing ovation. He swung at the first two pitches he saw, both strikes, and fouled them off. He then took four straight pitches outside the zone and earned more cheers from the home crowd as he trotted to first base. Franco quickly came around to score his first run, as loaded the bases with a one-out infield single and followed by knocking a single into shallow left field.

Overall, Franco saw 21 pitches over five plate appearances. He took 10 swings. He whiffed just once, on a fastball up in the zone in the third inning.

“The way he controls the at-bats, for how young he is,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “And this building behind him, I’ve never seen anything like this -- like that -- in this building. For him to slow down the game, they have a special one.”

• A sweet swing with power behind it? Of course -- that’s what he’s known for. The first three balls he put in play qualified as “hard-hit,” with exit velocities of 95 mph or more. After the Red Sox put up five runs against Ryan Yarbrough in a long third inning, Franco worked a full count and sent a jolt into the crowd with a 96.4 mph, 370-foot fly ball hit well to center field, but Danny Santana settled under it for Franco’s first out in the big leagues.

Franco’s talents were on display again in the seventh, when he crushed a low slider from lefty Josh Taylor to left field for a 105.3 mph double. Franco hustled and slid into second base, jumped to his feet and inspired rounds of “WAN-DER FRAN-CO” chants from the crowd of 12,994.

After seeing Franco tear up Triple-A, the Rays determined he was ready. He looked that way right away.

“You look at the last few weeks here, and it seemed like, OK, Wander made his adjustments back and was ready for a new challenge based on what he had shown and just how he's gone about his business,” general manager Erik Neander said before the game. “He passed those tests, so to speak, with flying colors, and [that] gives us the confidence that with him coming here and having to do a lot of the same things, he'll succeed in those efforts as well.”

• A knack for the big moment? There’s a reason rookie shortstop marveled before the game at how Franco “never doesn't have a moment.” Batting with two on and nobody out in the fifth, Franco unloaded on a first-pitch slider from Rodriguez and smashed it 362 feet out to left field. The crowd at Tropicana Field erupted, and he returned the favor by popping out of the dugout for his first curtain call.

Kind of feels like this is where he’s meant to be, right?

“God sent me a surprise with all this. I went out because I felt the support of the fans,” Franco said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “I felt like they came out to watch me and see me play, and so I wanted to thank them.”

• Oh, and he can play a little defense, too? Yep, especially with his natural instincts on the field. When Rafael Devers took off from second base on a Hunter Renfroe ground ball with one out in the eighth, Franco -- a natural shortstop who’s learned third base over the last year -- made the heads-up play to tag out Devers, then fired a strong throw to Yandy Díaz to force out Renfroe. Cash called it a “web gem play.” To hear Franco describe it, it sounded routine.

“When I made the play, I peeked over to see where he was at, and I saw that he was making an effort at it,” Franco said. “So I said, 'Hey, got to try to get this guy out.'”

So, officially, began the Rays’ Wander Franco era. With a loss, yes, continuing a frustrating stretch for a team trying to get back into first place. But also with electricity, energy and hope.

“We have a very good team. I think what you see from Wander, what he brought today, it's an energy,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “There's more of those guys that are able and willing to help. We've just got to continue playing good baseball, and we'll get out of this just fine.”