Franco feels good –

Rays shortstop homers in first AB and finishes 3-for-3 in Grapefruit League debut

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SARASOTA, Fla. — Wander Franco was supposed to have a breakout year in 2022 … well, as much as one can “break out” following a .288 rookie campaign, anyway.

Then came the injuries — first a tight right hamstring and a quad strain, then a broken right hamate bone that required surgery. While it was clear that the Rays’ phenom had all of the energy needed for a full season, he just couldn’t seem to stay healthy.

One swing on Monday showed he was glad to be back in action for 2023. Another swing said he was ready to do everything this season he’d left undone last year. A final connect was just kind of to remind everyone that he is, in fact, still very much Wander Franco.

“Thank God, I feel good,” he said following the Rays’ 14-2 win against the Orioles at Ed Smith Stadium. “[My body] felt normal, it felt fine in my mind, and I was looking for the pitch I wanted to hit.”

The O’s staff did its best to help Franco in his hunt, with each of the first three pitchers contributing to Franco’s stat line. He was already a triple shy of the cycle by the fourth inning with four RBIs in just three at-bats, and he would have likely had at least two more chances to knock it out had it not been his first Spring Training action.

“Encouraging,” Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said. “It was nice to see the guys come in. … It felt like all of them in the first part of the lineup did well. Wander looked good, Yandy [Díaz] looked good, Manny [Margot], [Isaac] Paredes, everybody had a bunch of good at-bats. It was kind of one of those days where it all came together.”

Franco’s first hit was his most impressive of the day, a two-run homer that came on a payoff pitch and wasted no time exiting the park via left-center field. He singled to right in the third for hit No. 2, then ended high with a two-run double that clanged off the fence in left field and pushed the score to 8-1 in the Rays’ favor.

Perhaps drawing from Franco’s playlist, Díaz and Randy Arozarena also went deep in their first spring game, something teammate Brandon Lowe said was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what the Rays will be capable of this season.

“I know that the big gripe of the offseason was everybody thought that we didn’t make enough moves,” Lowe said. “And [president of baseball operations] Erik [Neander] and the rest of the front office sat back and said, ‘We have talent here … they just need to be healthy,’ and I think that was kind of on show today, what a few healthy guys in our lineup will do for us offensively.”

Speaking of Lowe …
Monday marked Lowe’s first game action since a stress reaction in his lower back shelved him for all but 65 games in 2022. The Rays second baseman — who was coming off a career year in ‘21, swinging an ever-coveted dependable lefty bat that fit in so nicely atop the lineup during that 99-RBI, 39-homer campaign — singled to right in his first at-bat and finished 1-for-3.

More importantly, said both Cash and Lowe, was that Lowe had joined Franco back in the saddle and was ready to take advantage of full health.

“The new year after being sidelined the whole year from an injury, it’s always going to linger in the back of your mind,” Lowe admitted. “When swings started in January, I kind of got the assurance that everything was fine. I sat down with the [physical therapist] for a day that I was sore. I was like, ‘This can’t happen again; I’m scared.’

“And he settled me down. He was like, ‘Look, you’ve done everything right. It’s healed. You’re good to go. It’s just muscle soreness; you’re fine.’ And sure enough, it went away, and I felt great, and I’ve been feeling good so far this spring.”

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