'Typical Wander' bursts onto playoff stage

October 8th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- knows how to make a first impression.

The highly touted rookie lived up to the absurdly high expectations that were put on him earlier this season when he logged a double and a homer in his Major League debut on June 22. To follow suit, he mirrored that performance in his postseason debut on Thursday night in the Rays’ 5-0 victory over the Red Sox in Game 1 of the American League Division Series at Tropicana Field.

After an RBI double in the first and another double in the seventh, Franco became the first player in Major League history to have multiple extra-base hits in both his regular season debut and his postseason debut, according to Stats Perform. At just 20 years old, he’s also the youngest player to have a multihit performance in his first career playoff game, passing 21-year-old Edgar Renteria of the Marlins in 1997.

Watching a rookie thrive under the spotlight isn’t anything new for Tampa Bay. After Randy Arozarena dominated the playoffs last year (and did so again on Thursday with a homer and a rare straight steal of home), it was hard to imagine the team could have yet another young player step up to the plate in a similar way.

It may only be one game into the 2021 postseason, but Franco has already demonstrated that he has the same composure and poise that Rays fans got to see in Arozarena last year.

“Wander, first time in the postseason, he looks very relaxed,” Rays designated hitter Nelson Cruz said. “It was typical Wander. You know, he did bat pretty well. He swung at pitches for strikes, and he ran the bases pretty good.”

“Typical Wander” is something that Rays starter Shane McClanahan has grown accustomed to saying. The two have come up through Tampa Bay’s system together, beginning in Rookie-level Princeton in 2018 when Franco was just 17 years old, before playing together again at Class A Bowling Green in 2019. Fast forward a few years later and the two were key components in setting the tone in the first round of the 2021 playoffs.

Add in Arozarena and the trio helped the Rays become the first team in Major League history to have two rookies record an extra-base hit (Franco and Arozarena) and another rookie make a scoreless start in the same postseason game, according to Stats Perform.

“These guys have so much talent,” Cruz said, “and they show it every day.”

After McClanahan provided the spark in the first inning by striking out the side, Franco gave his pitcher the cushion he needed by knocking a changeup at the bottom of the strike zone to center field for a double that scored Arozarena from first. After a strikeout and a flyout in his next two at-bats, Franco smacked another double to left field in the seventh.

At 20 years and 220 days, Franco is the second-youngest player to log an extra-base hit in his postseason debut, trailing just Claudell Washington (20 years, 35 days) in Game 1 of the 1974 AL Championship Series. And only Manny Machado logged an RBI in his first career postseason game at an age younger than Franco.

Although it may be hard to believe that the Rays have yet another talented young player thriving in October, it’s something that McClanahan would’ve expected.

“I have been seeing Wander do stupid stuff since Princeton,” McClanahan said. “We could tell then he was special, and he just keeps doing it, and it's so impressive to watch. Same thing with Randy, too.”

Though it was Franco’s first time appearing in a postseason game, the rookie drew on his experiences from last year to help prepare him for this moment. Franco was part of the Rays’ postseason bubble in 2020, and even though he was never needed in a game, he was able to take mental notes on the preparation his teammates were putting in to be ready for each game. All it took was three pitches for him to prove that it paid off.

“I think if you leave it to the hands of God, He is the one that helps with the talent,” Franco said through team interpreter Manny Navarro. “You know, He actually says, ‘If you believe in the faith, you can move any mountain.’ So I'm glad I was able to help out the team in any way I can today and get the win.”