Wander Franco makes the first homer of the season and starts hot

CHICAGO – While acknowledging that it was in his best interest to rest his right quadriceps muscle on Monday night, Wander Franco admitted that having to watch the Rays’ series opener against the Cubs from the bench was “a little uncomfortable.”

Back in Tuesday night’s lineup at Wrigley Field, Franco looked as comfortable as he always seems to be in the batter’s box. The 21-year-old shortstop star from Tampa Bay hit his first home run of the season in the third inning, the highlight of an encouraging night for the Rays’ 6-5 win over the Cubs.

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

In the first 11 games of his first full Major League season, Franco managed seven multi-hit performances, most in the American League. Tuesday night has already been his fourth three-hit game of the season, tied for most at the Majors, and has increased his batting average to .404 and his OPS to 1.046.

He hit a right-handed home run, then hit a double to left center as he hit left-handed on his next hit. While the rest of the Rays’ lineup is still trying to get on the track, especially during a cold week in Chicago, Franco has been stuck from the start.

“I don’t think anything this guy does would surprise me at this point,” said peacemaker Andrew Kittredge. “He is a very special player and I hope he can continue because he will be a big part of our offense going forward.”

Franco’s two-run burst was the Rays’ first home run since Brandon Lowe went wide in the seventh inning of Thursday’s game against the A’s at Tropicana Field. It happened in Franco’s first game at The Friendly Confines, the historic stadium that is 87 years his senior, and in his return to the lineup after being scratched late Monday afternoon.

Franco said on Monday night that he would be ready to play on 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 re-emphasized a point they made earlier this season: He will sometimes have to manage his all-out effort to ensure he remains healthy and effective throughout the season. Tampa Bay loves the excitement and spirit of Franco, but doesn’t need to see him break the line on every terrain.

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

Franco tested his leg twice, running hard in his first inning, and then aggressively from the second inning into the fifth inning. But he also conserved some energy by simply running for bases after his first homer since Game 4 of the 2021 AL Division Series.

“I like to run,” Franco said, smiling, “but obviously that’s what happened – and I’m fine with that.”

With one out in third and Taylor Walls in first, Cubs southpaw Justin Steele had Randy Arozarena land a grounder to shortstop Nico Hoerner, who ran into second to force Walls. Arozarena won Hoerner’s pitch to first base, although it was initially ruled out.

But the Rays defied the call, which was voided, keeping the entrance alive and bringing in Franco. Slamming right-handed against Steele, he caught two fastballs to advance the count, then unloaded in a 91.5 mph sinker and sprinted into left center field. The ball flew from his bat at 108.3 mph, according to Statcast, and sailed a projected 417 feet into the stands at Wrigley Field to give the Rays a 3-0 lead.

“Every day this guy shows up, he’s getting three hits. And if he doesn’t get three hits, the ball is at least going 100 mph every hit,” said Walls, who tripled and made a key play behind Ryan Thompson to end the Cubs’ seventh-inning rally. “This boy is special. He’s fun to watch. He’s fun to play alongside.”

And apparently unable to shock its comrades. He only played 85 games in the Rays’ uniform, including the postseason, but the former player has already shown a mature approach, incredible talent and a remarkable ability to excel in big moments.

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

After Lowe’s single RBI at the end of the third made it a four-run game, Franco smashed a 102.6mph stunt on the ivy hanging on the left field wall with no one in the fifth. That rally fizzled after Arozarena was sent off trying to score on Franco’s second hit. But the Rays finally found the runs they needed in seventh, when Arozarena doubled Walls at home and scored in a Harold Ramirez single. Kittredge closed the door with two perfect innings to record his second defense of the season and give the Rays just their second win in their last seven games.

“Obviously, things weren’t going our way. We weren’t playing a lot of baseball,” Kittredge said. “Getting a good team win, kind of fought some comebacks from the Cubs, that was huge. It’s a big win.”

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