Wander Franco lifts Rays into first place

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NS. PETERSBURG – Wander Franco slipped headlong into third base, stared into the Rays dugout, pumped six times with his right fist and hit the bag once with his hand. The game’s top contender had just brought Tampa Bay to the top in yet another duel with Boston, one that ended with the Rays back at the top of the American League East.

Franco cheered on his teammates after his RBI single in the eighth with another energetic demonstration of emotions, turned to the dugout and pounded on his chest. It was a big game for the 20-year-old rookie, and he knew the significance of the Rays 9-5 win over the Red Sox on Saturday night before reaching the season of 20,521 at Tropicana Field.

The win overtook the Rays half a game ahead of the Red Sox and gave them sole possession of first place in the AL East for the first time since the end of the game on June 26th.

“It was for the team, definitely for the team,” Franco said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “We knew we were close to first place so it was for the team.”

Saturday’s matchup felt like a big game – one full of early leadership changes, long strokes, and high leverage moments. Franco came through in two of them, rappelling a tiebreak triple from Nathan Eovaldi in the sixth – his first shot at the majors – and a single in the eighth inning that gave Tampa Bay’s bullpen some breathing space.

Franco’s at-bat was particularly impressive in the sixth inning. He fell 0-2 behind Eovaldi, then worked his way back into the count and fouled two hard off-speed pitches. He switched on a full-count splitter downwards and inwards, sent it over the right field line and hurried to third base when Joey Wendle hit from the start.

“I feel very good,” said Franco. “Thank goodness I was able to see and get a pitch that I could handle and help the team as best I could.”

Franco had some challenging moments adjusting to major league competition – no surprise to any player, let alone a 20-year-old who seldom had problems – but his immense talent has grown over the past two nights shown. He doubled and tripled Friday nights, drove two runs on Saturday, and has scored 16-for-56 (0.286) with six extra base hits and seven RBIs in 14 games since the All-Star break.

“He’s really talented. He’s just a special player. At the age of 20 he does things, which is just amazing to me, ”said manager Kevin Cash. “Give Wander a lot of credit. I don’t know if he ever hit 0.250 at any level for a month, and he did it. He kept his head above water. And now it is getting really hot. “

But as is so often the case with the Rays, this win was a team effort. Brandon Lowe doubled up and scored two runs. Ji-Man Choi hit a two-run homer in the first inning. And Francisco Mejía delivered two clutch hits: a double homer in front of Eovaldi in the fourth and a double single in the eighth, which gave the Rays a comfortable lead.

Mejía shared starts behind the plate with Mike Zunino, going on July 13 for 41 with eight extra base hits and nine RBIs. He said the Rays helped him deal with a role that had no day-to-day playtime, and he recently worked with punch coach Chad Mottola to come up with a more patient approach.

“That is [the kind of] Team that we are, ”said Mejía of Navarro. “Everyone will participate in one way or another to get this victory and everyone has contributed in one way or another.”

This is especially true of the Rays bullpen, who played four scoreless innings on Saturday despite an incomprehensible number of injuries to their staff.

Andrew Kittredge took on Ryan Yarbrough as sixth starter and worked his way into and out of trouble. After beating JD Martinez to win a 10-pitch battle, Kittredge Xander Bogaerts and Alex Verdugo (on purpose) stepped in with a Hunter Renfroe double to load the bases. But Kittredge recovered and beat Christian Vázquez (after falling 3-0) and Bobby Dalbec (in three places) to get all three runners stranded and keep the game at 5.

With an out and a runner on the first in the seventh, Rafael Devers dropped a bunt on the open left side of the infield. As Jeffrey Springs ran to retrieve the ball near the third base, the Lefty Relief’s right knee buckled before falling to the ground, grasping his knee in apparent pain.

The Rays were encouraged to watch Springs walk off the field on his own after leaving the game with a sprained right knee. But it was a frightening moment for a club that already has 14 throwers – including 11 helpers – on the injured list. Cash said Springs “very likely” to join that group on Sunday.

Matt Wisler stepped in to relieve Springs, and after deliberately going to Bogaerts to load the bases, he escaped by hitting Renfroe with a full-count slider. Wisler fought for a flawless eighth place before the Rays continued ahead of the Red Sox and took first place at the end of the night.

With 105 games in the books, the Rays are exactly where they want to be. Now they only have to stay there for two more months, don’t they?

“That’s the plan,” said Cash. “We knew this was going to be a great homestand for us. We have to be happy that we kind of reset it here with two wins after losing the first two ball games and then came back to that position. We’ll go ahead and know we have another big game tomorrow night. “