Tampa Bay’s Youngsters Beat Boston the Old-Fashioned Way

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — So many times throughout the 2021 regular season, Randy Arozarena, the dazzling Tampa Bay Rays outfielder, has bugged his manager with the same request on the basepaths.

“He has asked me all season long, ‘Verde, verde, verde?’ — ‘Green light, green light?’ — and we’ve tried to manage that,” said Rays Manager Kevin Cash, using a sprinkle of Spanish.

But when Arozarena reached third base in the seventh inning of the Rays’ 5-0 win over the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 of the best-of-five American League division series on Thursday night, he noticed two things that made his eyes widen: the left-handed Red Sox reliever Josh Taylor wasn’t paying much attention to him, and third baseman Rafael Devers was shifted far away from the bag. So Arozarena quizzed Rays third base coach Rodney Linares about verde, verde, verde.

“I was just waiting for the authorization,” Arozarena said in Spanish, “and I looked at Cash over there and he gave me the authorization, so I went.”

In doing so, Arozarena produced one of the most exciting plays in the sport: a straight steal of home plate. And with it, the Rays provided another reminder: They might be known for their bookish innovation and for winning in spite of a small payroll but, with gifted rookies like Wander Franco and Arozarena, they can also play a thrilling brand of baseball.

“It’s nice to have those guys at the front of the lineup to put everything in movement,” Rays designated hitter Nelson Cruz said. “We can score so many ways, not necessarily with the homers.”

Although Cruz, 41, homered on Thursday, off the Tropicana Field catwalk, it was the youngsters — notably Arozarena and Franco — leading the way, as they had throughout the season. With two doubles and a run driven in during Game 1, Franco, 20, became the youngest player in major-league history to record multiple extra-base hits in his postseason debut. He also played solid defense at shortstop, showing a calm beyond his years, which he credited to big moments back home in his native Dominican Republic.

“I remembered the impressive moments I played in as a kid in tournaments, and they were always good tournaments with a lot of people,” he said in Spanish about the reason for his lack of nerves. “So I felt like a kid, really.”

The top prospect in baseball this year, Franco has been turning heads in the major leagues since his debut on June 22. Despite shooting through the minors, Franco hit .288 with seven home runs in 70 regular-season games with the Rays. His production has continued into the postseason.

Arozarena knows a thing or two about excelling on the biggest stage with little experience. With only 42 career regular-season games under his belt heading into last year’s postseason, Arozarena smashed a record 10 homers and collected 29 hits in 20 games to help power the Rays to the World Series, where they lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Despite that, Arozarena, 26, still qualified as a rookie during the 2021 season. On the field on Thursday, Arozarena, like Franco, didn’t play like a novice. His straight steal of home was the first in a postseason game since Javier Baez did it for the Chicago Cubs against the Dodgers in Game 1 of the 2016 National League Championship Series.

“I’ve been impressed,” Cruz said of Arozarena and Franco. “They’ve been doing it all year long. Wander’s first time in the postseason and he looks very relaxed. It was typical Wander: He did bat pretty well, he swung at pitches for strikes and he ran the bases pretty good. And Randy, he just goes to a different level once the postseason starts.”

Nelson Cruz is more than double Wander Franco’s age. They both played big parts in Tampa Bay’s win.Credit…Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Not only did Arozarena notice a Red Sox opening he could exploit with his legs, he also hit a fifth-inning solo home run on Thursday. Many of the 27,419 people in attendance serenaded him to chants of “Ran-dy! Ran-dy!” after both moments.

“My mind feels like a 100-year old man,” said Arozarena, who hit .274 with 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases in 141 games this year. He added later, “Rookies are only marks that you have to reach in the big leagues, but I feel like a veteran.”

During last year’s postseason, Arozarena discovered a good-luck charm in the form of cowboy boots he wore on the field during batting practice before games. He put them on again before Thursday’s game and, according to him, they worked.

“That means the magic is there and it can’t be changed,” Arozarena said.

Tampa Bay got help from other rookies on Thursday: Shane McClanahan (who had a 3.43 earned run average in 123⅓ regular-season innings) pitched five scoreless innings and J.P. Feyereisen (a 2.45 E.R.A. over 36⅔ regular-season innings) threw two of his own.

“I have been seeing Wander do stupid stuff since Princeton,” McClanahan, 24, said of the Rays’ lowest-level minor league affiliate, where he and Franco were teammates in 2018.

“We could tell then he was special, and he just keeps doing it and it’s so impressive to watch. Same thing with Randy, too. It’s really fun to go to the field every single day and be like, I wonder how many home runs Randy is going to hit today, or how many diving plays?”

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