ST. PETERSBURG -- More than a month into his Major League career, Wander Franco is still checking off career firsts. During the Rays’ 4-3 loss to the Yankees on Tuesday night, for instance, he faced a 103 mph fastball for the first time -- and proved once again why he was such a highly touted hitter in the Minors.
Batting with two outs, nobody on base and the Rays trailing by a run in the ninth inning, Franco fell behind in the count Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman, 0-2. Chapman reached back for a 103.1 mph fastball, which Franco fouled off to stay alive. The 20-year-old switch-hitter then took four straight pitches, all balls, to earn a walk and bring up Nelson Cruz.
“Just trying to stay focused. I was just trying to be myself and just be natural,” Franco said Wednesday through interpreter Manny Navarro. “Obviously with him, how hard he throws, it can be a little intimidating. But I tried to stay calm, and luckily I won that at-bat.”
Franco admitted he’d never had to hit 103 mph heat -- the hardest pitch he’d seen in the Majors before that was a 100.8 mph cutter from Cleveland’s Emmanuel Clase -- but he wasn’t focused on the radar gun while at the plate. Rays manager Kevin Cash called it “a pretty veteran at-bat,” high praise for a rookie playing his 25th Major League game. Then again, Cash has nothing but praise for the top prospect a little more than a month into his Major League career.
“He’s going to be a really good player. He's already a really good player,” Cash said. “I think that I'll just continue to harp on the patience part. It's going to take some time, just letting him continue to get his feet wet and get acclimated.”
Franco said that process is growing easier, noting Wednesday that he’s “getting comfortable faster” the more time he spends in the Majors. He credited his teammates for helping him make the transition from Triple-A to the Majors and said he’s already learned from Cruz, the 41-year-old slugger Franco previously admired from afar, in his first week with the Rays.
“Just trying to be a veteran,” Franco said. “Just to let the ball come to you as a hitter and just be out here and be calm.”
Around the horn
• Right-hander Luis Patiño will start opposite Yankees ace Gerrit Cole in the series finale Thursday afternoon at Tropicana Field. After being recalled for a one-and-done start against the Blue Jays on July 2 in Buffalo, N.Y., Patiño gave up four runs over 5 1/3 innings in the Rays’ 5-4 win over Cleveland last Thursday. The 21-year-old said knowing he has a set spot in Tampa Bay’s rotation increased his confidence heading to the mound.
“I know when they had that start in Buffalo, and I knew I was going to get sent down, I had it with the purpose of being able to come back and stay as a starter,” Patiño said through Navarro. “It helps me with confidence and helps me maintain my routine and my workload so that I know when I'm going to pitch again.”
• After going 3-for-4 and slugging his 22nd home run on Tuesday, second baseman Brandon Lowe entered Wednesday’s game hitting .305/.423/.678 with six homers in July. Lowe -- who lamented his slow start to the season offensively -- began the night leading all qualified Rays with an .808 OPS on the year.
“I think Brandon's year has been awesome,” Cash said. “I know it got there pretty quickly over about a three-week, month stretch, but we've got to be really pleased with the way he's swinging.”
• Right fielder Manuel Margot prevented a run in the sixth inning Tuesday at Tropicana Field with a five-star catch, according to Statcast, making a sprawling grab to strand a runner at second base. Margot had to cover 69 feet in four seconds to pull off the play with just a 20% catch probability. Margot leads all Major League outfielders with 11 Outs Above Average this season, according to Statcast.
• The Rays finished signing their entire MLB Draft class on Tuesday by agreeing to terms with third-round infielder Ryan Spikes, eighth-round lefty Patrick Wicklander and 16th-round righty Ian Leatherman. On Wednesday, MLB.com’s Jim Callis reported the terms of Spikes’ signing bonus; the shortstop prospect signed for $1,097,500, well above the 100th pick’s assigned slot value of $581,600.
Tampa Bay signed all 21 of its picks, and 10 of the of the club’s 11 selection on the first two days of the Draft signed at or below the slot value of their picks. That freed up room in the Rays’ bonus pool to ink Spikes, a Tennessee commit who hit .400 in 36 games as a high school senior.