ST. PETERSBURG — Two days after an early exit caused by a headache, rookie shortstop Wander Franco returned to the Rays’ lineup on Saturday afternoon at Tropicana Field and immediately extended his historic on-base streak to 34 games with an RBI single to center field.
Franco sat out of Tampa Bay’s series-opening win against Minnesota on Friday night, but the 20-year-old switch-hitter batted second and played shortstop against Twins left-hander Andrew Albers in the second game of the series. Franco was cleared to play and seemed back to normal hours before first pitch. After being held out of the Rays’ pregame work on Friday, he was back to smiling and joking around during infield drills and crushing balls into the seats during batting practice on Saturday.
“We checked a lot of boxes last night where he got on a stationary bike and did some things. No issue whatsoever,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Good to have him back.”
And Franco showed no ill effects in his first inning back. After Randy Arozarena’s leadoff triple, Franco laced a run-scoring single up the middle off Albers. He then tagged up, slid into second base on a Nelson Cruz flyout to right field and scored on a Yandy Díaz single to right.
Among players 20 years old or younger, Franco’s 34-game on-base streak is the third longest in AL/NL history, breaking a tie with the Pirates’ Arky Vaughan (33 games from July 12-Aug. 10, 1932) and the New York Giants’ Mel Ott (33 from Aug. 24-Oct. 6, 1929), both Hall of Famers. He trails only another pair of Hall of Famers in that department: Mickey Mantle (36 games, from 1951-52) and Frank Robinson (43 in 1956).
Regardless of age, Franco’s streak is the longest by a rookie shortstop since Hanley Ramirez reached in 36 straight games for the Marlins in 2006. It is also the longest active on-base streak in the Majors, the longest by a rookie in club history and the longest single-season streak by a Rays player since Johnny Damon reached in 39 consecutive games from May 3-June 14, 2011.
It’s still unclear what caused Franco’s headache in the Rays’ series finale against the Red Sox on Thursday. He ran through the league’s concussion protocol and tested negative and passed every other test required to be cleared to return.
After fouling off a full-count changeup from left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez in the seventh inning Thursday at Tropicana Field, Franco stepped out of the batter’s box, winced and rubbed his right ear. Red Sox catcher Christian Vázquez noticed the same thing the Rays did — that Franco seemed uncomfortable — prompting a visit from Cash and first assistant athletic trainer Mark Vinson.
Franco insisted he could stay in to finish the plate appearance, so he took ball four from Rodriguez to extend his on-base streak to 33 games. Then, Franco motioned toward Tampa Bay’s dugout that he needed to come out. Franco was then replaced at first base by pinch-runner Joey Wendle, but he stayed in long enough to reach another significant milestone in his streak.
Franco has not struck out in his last 35 plate appearances, and he has only two strikeouts in his last 76 plate appearances.
“He just gets on base at a really high clip,” Cash said. “The at-bats were good when he got up here, and the numbers maybe weren’t matching what he was doing. Now, he’s figured out a way to have the at-bats be good and the numbers are backing that up. Just a really talented player, both sides of the ball.”
Joe Ryan, meet Nelson Cruz
Right-hander Joe Ryan was standing just outside the visitors’ dugout at Tropicana Field on Saturday afternoon, telling reporters about his experience being traded from the Rays to the Twins while he was with Team USA at the Olympics in Tokyo, when a visitor approached from the other side of the field.
It was Nelson Cruz, the man traded from Minnesota to Tampa Bay on July 22 for Ryan and fellow pitching prospect Drew Strotman. Cruz congratulated the 25-year-old Ryan, the Rays’ seventh-round pick in the 2018 Draft, for making his Major League debut on Wednesday.
“Thank you very much,” Ryan replied. “Thanks for getting me over here. Appreciate it.”
Cruz smiled as he answered, “Thank you for getting me here.”
It’s been a whirlwind few months for Ryan. He left the country as a member of the Rays’ organization, taking part in the Team USA experience with fellow Triple-A Durham pitching prospect Shane Baz. He was having breakfast with Baz, in fact, when Olympic teammate Eric Filia told them Cruz had been traded to the Rays. Amid the lengthy travel day to Tokyo, Ryan had missed the call informing him he was on the other side of the deal.
“Baz and I kind of looked at each other and knew it was probably going to be one of us,” Ryan said. “And I looked at my phone and I had a missed call from [Rays farm director] Jeff McLerran, so I kind of knew it was me.”
Ryan has enjoyed a smooth transition to the Twins’ organization. He learned about manager Rocco Baldelli from Baldelli’s former Rays teammates Edwin Jackson and Scott Kazmir, who were also Ryan’s teammates in the Olympics. And this weekend has felt like a homecoming for Ryan, even though he never pitched in the Majors for Tampa Bay, because he’s been able to catch up with so many former Minor League teammates like Franco, Taylor Walls, Shane McClanahan and Dietrich Enns.
“I feel like I kind of knew that, at some point in my career, I was probably going to end up on another team, and just looking at the business side of it, it makes sense,” Ryan said. “It’s always going to be a little bit sad to leave … but it’s also exciting. There’s new opportunities, and then coming in, it’s been amazing, so I literally have not had one day where I’ve been down or missed anything. It’s just like, ‘Hey, we’re moving forward.’”