December 7, 2022

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Wander's torrid start: 4th 3-hit game & 1st HR

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CHICAGO — Although he recognized it was in his best interest to rest his tight right quadriceps muscle Monday night, Wander Franco admitted that having to watch the Rays’ series opener against the Cubs from the dugout was “a little uncomfortable.”

Back in the lineup Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, Franco looked as comfortable as he seemingly always does in the batter’s box. Tampa Bay’s 21-year-old star shortstop slugged his first home run of the season in the third inning, the highlight of an encouraging all-around night for the Rays’ lineup in their 6-5 win over the Cubs.

“He’s unique, special, talented, and we’re seeing it in every part of his game,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said.

In the first 11 games of his first full Major League season, Franco has put together seven multihit performances, most in the American League. Tuesday night was already his fourth three-hit game of the season, tied for most in the Majors, and it boosted his batting average to .404 and his OPS to 1.046.

He pulled a home run batting right-handed, then smashed a double to left-center while hitting left-handed in his next at-bat. While the rest of the Rays’ lineup is still trying to get on track, especially during a cold week in Chicago, Franco has been locked in from the start.

“I don’t think anything that guy does would surprise me at this point,” reliever Andrew Kittredge said. “He’s a pretty special player, and hopefully he can just keep it going, because he’s going to be a huge part of our offense going forward.”

Franco’s two-run blast was the Rays’ first home run since Brandon Lowe went deep in the seventh inning of Thursday’s game against the A’s at Tropicana Field. It came in Franco’s first game at The Friendly Confines, the historic ballpark that’s 87 years older than him, and in his return to the lineup after being scratched late Monday afternoon.

Franco said Monday night he’d be ready to play Tuesday. Clearly, he was.

“Of course, of course,” Franco said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “I was ready to play since yesterday.”

The Rays believed the day off was the right move for Franco, and it reemphasized a point they’ve made early this season: He’ll sometimes have to manage his energetic all-out effort to ensure he stays healthy and effective throughout the season. Tampa Bay loves Franco’s hustle and spirit, but doesn’t need to see him bust it down the line on every single groundout.

“From here on out,” Franco said before the game, “I’m really going to pay attention to just maintaining my body.”

Franco tested his leg twice, running hard on his first-inning groundout, then aggressively tagging up from second in the fifth inning. But he also conserved some energy by simply jogging around the bases after his first homer since Game 4 of the 2021 AL Division Series.

“I like to run,” Franco said, grinning, “but obviously that’s what happened — and I’m OK with it.”

With one out in the third and Taylor Walls on first, Cubs left-hander Justin Steele got Randy Arozarena to hit a grounder to shortstop Nico Hoerner, who hurried to second to force out Walls. Arozarena beat Hoerner’s throw to first base, although he was initially ruled out.

But the Rays challenged the call, which was overturned, keeping the inning alive and bringing up Franco. Batting right-handed against Steele, he took two fastballs to get ahead in the count, then unloaded on a 91.5 mph sinker and ripped it out to left-center field. The ball flew off his bat at 108.3 mph, according to Statcast, and sailed a projected 417 feet into the Wrigley Field bleachers to give the Rays a 3-0 lead.

“Every day that guy shows up, he’s getting three hits. And if he doesn’t get three hits, the ball is at least coming off 100 mph every at-bat,” said Walls, who tripled and made a key play behind Ryan Thompson to end the Cubs’ seventh-inning rally. “That kid is special. He’s fun to watch. He’s fun to play beside.”

And, apparently, incapable of shocking his teammates. He’s only played 85 games in a Rays uniform, including the postseason, but the former top prospect has already shown a mature approach, incredible talent and a remarkable ability to come through in big moments.

“He didn’t surprise me at all. He does everything well,” Arozarena said through Navarro. “He’s a great player.”

After Lowe’s RBI single later in the third made it a four-run game, Franco crushed a 102.6 mph double into the ivy hanging on the left-field wall with nobody out in the fifth. That rally fizzled after Arozarena was thrown out trying to score on Franco’s second hit. But the Rays ultimately found the runs they needed in the seventh, when Arozarena doubled home Walls and scored on a Harold Ramirez single. Kittredge slammed the door with two perfect innings to record his second save of the season and give the Rays only their second win in the last seven games.

“Obviously, things weren’t really going our way. We weren’t playing great baseball,” Kittredge said. “To get a good team win, kind of fought off some comebacks by the Cubs there, that was huge. It’s a big win.”

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