BOSTON -- As soon as the ball bounced off the Green Monster, Wander Franco had a feeling. Nevermind that his 104.2 mph missile to left-center field eventually caromed back into the outfield, or that the umpires initially ruled it a double. As he trotted to second base, Franco held up his hands, confused by the call. He knew he’d just hit a tie-breaking home run to end an impressive at-bat and key an important win for the Rays.
With a runner on first and nobody out in the sixth inning, the 20-year-old rookie fouled off six of the first 10 pitches he saw, including five with two strikes, to wear down Red Sox starter Tanner Houck. Franco unloaded on the 11th pitch of the at-bat -- a 91.9 mph sinker -- and smacked it to left-center field. The ball slammed off the wall, just to the left of the yellow line on the Green Monster, then bounced near the base of the elevated flagpole beside a tarped-over section of center-field seats before landing back on the field.
After the umpires talked it over, they ruled that Franco had indeed hit a two-run home run. That put the Rays ahead, and they never looked back in an 8-1 victory over the Red Sox on Thursday afternoon at Fenway Park.
It was the Rays’ seventh win in their past eight games against the Red Sox, their 17th win in 25 games since the All-Star break and their 70th overall this season, the most in the American League. It quickly put Wednesday night’s lopsided 20-8 loss in the rearview mirror, sealed a series victory in Boston and restored the club’s lead in the AL East to five games.
“It was a very important game,” Franco said through an interpreter. “We played like we were supposed to play.”
After an uneven start to his big league career, Franco -- the former No. 1 prospect in baseball -- has been playing more like he’s supposed to play, too. He’s riding a 15-game on-base streak, and he’s driven in at least one run and scored a run in each of his past six games. He’s hitting .272/.333/.457 with eight extra-base hits, 15 RBIs and only 16 strikeouts in 23 games since the All-Star break.
Rays manager Kevin Cash said Franco is showing “more comfort day by day” in the Majors, and he showed it in his sixth-inning battle with Houck. He fell behind in the count, 1-2, then fouled off three fastballs and two sliders that were in or around the strike zone and took a pair of offspeed pitches outside the zone. Finally, he saw a sinker that Houck left up and hit it hard.
“I was looking for a pitch to hit in the zone. He was throwing me in. He was throwing me out,” Franco said. “So I was just trying to stay calm and just trying to keep myself, and the ball, in the zone.”
Maybe that’s just Franco’s naturally advanced approach in action. Maybe it’s his growing comfort and confidence playing a part. But this is what the Rays believe the switch-hitting shortstop is capable of doing, the reason he was such a highly touted prospect at such a young age.
“He’s just really talented. I don't know if it's maturity or just being a pretty special 20-year-old,” Cash said. “There's just not many guys that are capable of doing that.”
“That was incredible,” Rays right-hander Drew Rasmussen said. “I mean, the kid's 20. You don't see 20-year-olds have at-bats like that.”
Despite Franco’s assuredness about the home run, his fifth in the Majors, there was some confusion inside the ballpark based on where it bounced off the wall and where it landed. If it had caromed off that part of the wall directly onto the field, it would’ve been a double. Even longtime observers of baseball in Boston found Franco's home run to be unusual, perhaps even unprecedented.
According to the Fenway Park ground rules, any batted ball that strikes the left-center-field wall to the left of the yellow line behind the flagpole in flight and bounds into the seats on top of the center-field wall is a home run. When the umpires explain those rules before games, Red Sox manager Alex Cora said he usually hears them talk about that part of the ballpark and thinks, “Yeah, right. I’m never going to see that.”
“And it happens,” Cora said. “That’s a first.”
“I’ve never seen anything like that, but that’s what you get whenever you’re in a historical ballpark with all the nooks and crannies and the layout of the field,” Houck added. “Something new with baseball every single day, I swear.”
Franco became the youngest Tampa Bay player (20 years, 164 days) to go deep at Fenway Park. The Rays tacked on another run in the sixth on a balk by reliever Hansel Robles then pulled away in a four-run eighth, when Joey Wendle tripled and scored on a Manuel Margot sacrifice fly and Mike Zunino crushed his 23rd home run of the season over the Green Monster.
That was more than enough run support for the Rays’ pitching staff. A day after giving up 20 runs on 19 hits, five pitchers -- Rasmussen, Collin McHugh, JT Chargois, Louis Head and Ryan Sherriff -- combined to hold the Red Sox to two hits and three walks while striking out 11.
Rasmussen, a reliever thrust into a starting role with Ryan Yarbrough currently on the COVID-19-related injured list, battled through the 95-degree heat and efficiently set the tone with four strikeouts and only one run allowed over a career-high four innings.
“He was awesome. Good for Drew,” Cash said. “Good for all the guys -- two hits, one run in this ballpark -- but Drew really stood out.”