If anyone understood the maelstrom of hype that followed Wander Franco into his major league debut Tuesday night at Tropicana Field, it was Red Sox manager Alex Cora. He had seen it before.
With the Sox set to be the first test for baseball’s next big thing, the best-case scenario by Cora’s estimation would have been if Franco had a long and wonderful career and a lousy, uneventful first series.
That didn’t happen. The Sox survived anyway, 9-5, in 11 innings.
Franco made his mark immediately, blasting his first home run in his third career plate appearance. But the Sox stared down the Rays, pushing through a four-inning drought without a baserunner, to pick up the win and push their lead in the AL East to 1½ games over the Rays.
“That’s a big-league win against a team that they’re the American League favorites,” Cora said. “Everybody thought coming to the season that that team, they have a chance to get back to the World Series and we did a good job against them.”
With the score locked at 5 in the 11th, the Rays were on their seventh pitcher of the night, Pete Fairbanks, and the Sox were just trying desperately to break through.
Xander Bogaerts led off the inning with Connor Wong at second base and worked a nine-pitch at-bat before shooting a single to left field to put runners on the corners. Then Bogaerts stole second to set up two runners in scoring position for Rafael Devers.
Devers got a 2-and-1 fastball and ripped it to right field for a two-run double that gave the Sox a 7-5 lead.
The Sox padded that lead the next at-bat with an RBI single from Hunter Renfroe, then got more cushion two batters later when Renfroe scored on a sacrifice fly from Kiké Hernández.
“There’s certain teams that you have to be aggressive,” Cora said. “If you sit back and wait for for the home run or three straight base hits, it’s not going to happen. I think we made a conscious effort to put the ball in play today.”
The Sox had to battle back after watching Franco erase an early lead with one swing.
The Sox were sitting comfortably on a 5-2 lead when Franco came to the fifth inning with runners on first and second. He had drawn a walk in his first at-bat and flew out to center in his second. But after seeing Sox starter Eduardo Rodriguez twice, he came into the box eager.
Rodriguez left a first-pitch slider over the plate and Franco delivered the magic that the Rays had been waiting for.
He shipped Rodriguez’s pitch into the left-field bleachers. First major league hit, first major league home run. One tie game.
With one swing, Franco once again met the moment and, at the same time, took the air of a Sox team looking to get back on track after dropping two of three to the Kansas City Royals.
The Sox got six innings from Rodriguez, who gave up five runs (three earned) on seven hits with seven strikeouts.
He got through some turbulence in the first inning, when errors on the left side of the infield put him in a difficult spot. Devers booted a ground ball from Yandy Diaz to lead off the inning, Franco walked, and Randy Arozarena had an infield single to load the bases. With two outs, Francisco Mejia shot a ground ball to short, but Bogaerts bounced his throw to second, and the ball rolled into the outfield, allowing Diaz and Franco to score.
The Sox got Rodriguez out of the hole in the fifth inning thanks to a two-run double from J.D. Martinez, a sacrifice fly by Devers, and a two-run homer from Renfroe.
But the Sox went the next four innings without a baserunner. Pulling out a win came down to staying the course.
“If you take a look at the guys that we have in this roster, they have to earn everything that they have,” Cora said. “We’ve got a bunch of grinders, a bunch of guys that on other teams they didn’t play that much. They’re getting their opportunity to play here. We just like to play baseball. It’s a good baseball team.
“We still have to get better in certain things, I keep saying it. But at the end of the day, you tell us where and when, what time, it doesn’t matter. If it takes 2 hours and 45 minutes — or whatever it took today [4:21] — we will push until the end, no matter the result.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.