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2021 Tampa Bay Rays: Top Sox, Regain Division Lead

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Sunday night, things were suddenly starting to look grim for the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays. A serious, potentially season-ending injury to ace Tyler Glasnow had contributed to a six-game losing streak, including a brutal four-game sweep at the hands of the hapless Mariners. They had dropped to second place in the AL East, and any remnants of the cheery mood leftover from their long winning streak had all but evaporated.

But late Sunday night, the big news broke—Wander Franco was getting the call. And just in time, too, as the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays team were facing arguably their biggest test yet in a mid-week series against the now-first visiting Boston Red Sox. In a division like the AL East (where four of the five teams are over .500), every divisional game counts.

Series Highlights

Tuesday started off with a level of anticipation not seen at the Trop in some time. Baseball’s wunderkind and undisputed #1 prospect for two years straight, Wander Franco, was making his big league debut. The future of the Rays was here, and not a moment too soon, as the Rays were desperate for a jolt of energy.

While Franco’s debut was as electric as the billing suggested, it wasn’t enough to push Tampa Bay to victory as the Rays lost their seventh straight game. Ryan Yarbrough, making a “start” behind an opener, gave up five runs while recording just six outs. While the Rays bullpen held the line to force extras, the Red Sox exploded in the top of the 11th for four runs as reliever Pete Fairbanks gave up three straight hits to lead off the inning. Tampa Bay couldn’t make anything happen in the bottom of the inning and it was a rough 9-5 start to the series.

With their depleted rotation, the Rays looked to Rich Hill to lock things down for the second game—and he delivered. Despite giving up a run in the top of the first, the Rays got on the board with a two-run shot from Austin Meadows in the bottom of the inning and never looked back. It turned into a rout, with the Sox falling 8-2 as Tampa Bay evened the series and snapped their streak.

With the series on the line, Michael Wacha took the mound Thursday for the Rays, opposite Boston’s Nick Pivetta. A pitchers’ duel commenced, with Wacha having his best outing in months, pitching five scoreless (his first time topping even four IP in a game since April). Unfortunately, the Red Sox were even more dialed in, with Pivetta leaving the game in the seventh with 6.2 IP, 8 K, and a no-hitter intact. Kevin Kiermaier‘s double in the 8th broke up the no-no, but the Rays were unable to convert the opportunity into a lead.

Luckily, Tampa Bay’s bullpen was dialed in and the game was still scoreless heading into the ninth. Recent acquiree from the Willy Adames trade, J.P. Feyereisen, pitched a clean ninth for Tampa Bay. Sox closer Matt Barnes got two quick outs in the bottom of the ninth and it looked like extra innings were in the cards for the series rubber match.

But Manuel Margot had other plans, singling to keep the inning alive. Margot swiped second base, and the ensuing throwing error from Sox catcher Christian Vazquez allowed him to take third. A wild pitch from Barnes was enough of a window for Margot to beat Barnes to home plate and walk it off. The 2021 Tampa Bay Rays squad was back in first in the AL East.

The Franco Debut

A high-stakes series between the top two teams in the division? Nah, that wasn’t the headline. Instead, the debut of 20-year-old phenom Wander Franco was the big draw of the series.

His debut Tuesday was out of a movie. In his first plate appearance, Franco quickly fell down 0-2 in the count. But with his sharp eye and impeccable plate discipline, he battled back to force a walk, coming around to score before the inning concluded.

After a flyout in his second plate appearance, Franco came up in the fifth inning still looking for his first big league hit. And on the very first pitch of the at-bat from Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez, Franco’s lightning-fast hands deposited the slider (which wasn’t even in the zone!) all the way over the left-field wall for a three-run homer. He would add a double in the seventh and finish the day 2-4 with a HR, 2B, 2 R, 3 RBI, and a BB. Not bad for a debut.

The next few games weren’t quite as picturesque for the rookie, but despite some struggles at the plate, there’s a lot to be excited about. In game two, Franco went 0-3 but drew two walks and scored a run. Game three was the ugliest, as Franco went 0-4 with three strikeouts, but he did steal his first base after grounding into a force out. And after all, the Sox had a no-no going through the eighth, so it’s hard to put too much blame on the 20-year-old.

After his first series, Franco is 2-11 in the big leagues but, thanks to his plate discipline (three walks to four strikeouts) and power (both hits were for extra bases), he comes out of it with an impressive .903 OPS. In just three games, he showcased why he’s the number one prospect in baseball, and a huge part of the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays season and future.

Looking Ahead for the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays

For Franco, he’ll look to build on his success and maintain his elite plate discipline. As pitchers adjust, it’ll be interesting to see whether he can keep a high walk rate and, importantly, keep his strikeouts low. Three of his four strikeouts came in the almost-no-hitter so they could be an aberration—or a sign of reality setting in. No matter what, his quick hands will steal quite a few hits for him.

The rest of the Rays have some positive notes to build on. The rotation, after Yarbrough’s struggles in game one, settled in nicely with a solid game from the age-defying Hill and the best game since April from Wacha. They’ll need to build on that momentum as Josh Fleming is slated to take the bulk of the innings behind opener Andrew Kittredge as the Los Angeles Angels visit the Trop with former Rays skipper Joe Maddon.

The 2021 Tampa Bay Rays infield will continue to morph—rookie Taylor Walls was placed on the IL, which will likely give Franco some reps at shortstop (along with utility infielder Joey Wendle). Brandon Lowe had a strong series at the plate, putting up nearly identical numbers to Franco by going 2-10 with a double and a three-run homer. Lowe, who has struggled offensively this season after a dominant 2020, will need to be a key part of the Rays’ offense down the stretch if they want to repeat last season’s postseason success.

Glasnow’s injury may have put a damper on the Rays’ optimism, but it should be making a comeback with the debut of Wander Franco. Whether they can make it back to the World Series remains to be seen, but the 2021 Tampa Bay Rays still have a lot to remain positive about.

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Dylan Burris has been a lifelong Chicago Cubs fan since 2015, but covers the Rays on Overtime Heroics. A graduate of the University of North Carolina, he directs most of his non-baseball attention towards college basketball.