ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Wander Franco rolled up to Tropicana Field on Tuesday afternoon in a Rolls Royce Cullinan that sells for $330,000.
When the 20-year-old popped out of the Tampa Bay dugout at 6:51 p.m. to start warming up, the crowd noticed right away and cheered. Franco responded by pumping his knees a little faster as he ran across the outfield behind second base. The cheers got louder.
The top prospect in baseball drew a walk and came around to score his first time up and was out on a fly ball to center field the second time.
Franco arrived at the plate in the fifth inning still needing a signature moment in his major league debut. It came when he belted a game-tying three-run homer off Eduardo Rodriguez.
Rodriguez threw a curveball below the strike zone, but Franco went down and got it. The ball sizzled into the bleachers in left field for the first of what are sure to be many home runs.
“I felt super good in that at-bat,” Franco said through a translator. “I knew I was going to hit a home run because that was the pitch I was looking for.”
Franco popped out of the dugout for a curtain call and waved to the fans.
“The fans had come out to support me,” he said. “I wanted to thank them.”
When Franco came back to the plate in the seventh inning, the crowd had a “Let’s go Franco” chant ready. He responded with a double off Josh Taylor.
It looked easy for him, and maybe it is. Franco hit .332 with a .933 OPS in the minors, racing through the Rays system after being signed for $3.82 million out of the Dominican Republic in 2017.
“What a good player he is, the way he controls the at-bat,” Sox manager Alex Cora said.
When the Red Sox threatened to take the lead in the eighth inning, Franco saved the Rays with a play at third base. He scooped up a grounder from Hunter Renfroe and chased down Rafael Devers as he approached third.
Devers ran out of the baseline and was called out. Franco’s throw to first got Renfroe by half a step for a double play. It was a terrific play, especially for a rookie who played mostly shortstop coming up.
“Everything that’s said about him is true,” said a National League scout. “He’s a physical presence on the field. Your eyes are drawn to him.”
It took one game for Franco to become the most notable and popular member of the Rays. The game drew only 12,994 fans but they were loud and engaged.
“I’ve never seen anything like that in this building,” Cora said.
So were the many Red Sox fans on hand after the visiting team ruined Franco’s debut by winning 9-5 in 11 innings.
Even with Franco going 2 for 4, the Rays extended their losing streak to seven games. Four of those losses have come in extra innings.
The Sox now have a 1 1/2-game lead in the division, their largest since May 16. They have won all four games against the Rays this season.
The go-ahead run was scored by another player making his major league debut, backup catcher Connor Wong. The 25-year-old pinch-ran for J.D. Martinez at second base to start the final inning and scored on a Devers double.
The Rays gave Franco No. 5, the kind of number a player gets when he’s going to stick around. The Sox gave Wong No. 74, which is what you get when you’ll be going back to the minors for more seasoning.
But Wong, who was one of the prospects obtained from the Dodgers in the Mookie Betts trade, can forever say he helped win the game on the night he made his debut. That’s something Franco won’t have on his resume.
The game ended with Franco on deck as Wong came out to the field to shake hands with his new teammates.
The night belonged to No. 5. The win belonged to No. 74.
Peter Abraham can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.