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End of year review in Tampa Bay: A Wander-ful addition for Tampa Bay

The eagerly awaited promotion of Wander Franco finally arrived, and the Lightning reached the Stanley Cup final after a tough series with the Islanders.
Rays rookie Wander Franco circles the bases after hitting a home run against the Boston Red Sox in his major-league debut June 22 at Tropicana Field.
Rays rookie Wander Franco circles the bases after hitting a home run against the Boston Red Sox in his major-league debut June 22 at Tropicana Field. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 25, 2021

2021 was certainly an eventful year for Florida sports, especially in Tampa Bay. Columnist John Romano is looking back at the year that was, one month at a time.

During his first hour on the new job, Wander Franco got a standing ovation. By the time his second hour of work rolled around, he was stepping out of the dugout for a curtain call.

If the hype seemed insane, the reality was really bonkers. The No. 1 prospect in baseball for two years in a row, Franco made his Major League debut in grand fashion on June 22 at Tropicana Field.

Related: End of the year review in Tampa Bay: Historic January playoff run

Told he was being called up to the majors 48 hours earlier by Triple-A manager Brady Williams while at a Mexican restaurant in Rocky Mount, N.C., during a 10-hour bus ride from Norfolk, Va., the 20-year-old Franco looked as if this exact moment had been written in the stars forever.

The 20-year-old shortstop drew a walk in his first at-bat against Boston pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez and then, in his third trip to the plate, drilled a three-run homer to leftfield. Two innings later, he doubled.

“God sent me a surprise with all of this,” Franco said afterward through an interpreter.

Related: End of the year review in Tampa Bay: Does the Lombardi Trophy float?

Tampa Bay had seen top prospects pass through Tropicana Field — Evan Longoria, David Price, B.J. Upton, Delmon Young — but nothing had approached the anticipation of Franco’s arrival.

Signed as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic for $3.85 million, Franco tore up every league he was assigned to and quickly became the top of minor league baseball.

Related: End of year review: Five years of glory and no Final Four

“He doesn’t want to be good. He wants to be great. And that’s a very rare trait to see, especially in a 20-year-old,” Williams said after Franco hit .315 with seven homers in his first 39 games in Triple-A. “There’s a lot of players that have that drive to be great, or the skill set. (Franco) has the skill set and the drive to do that.”

It took about a month for Franco to get acclimated to the big leagues, but he eventually hit .323 with as many walks as strikeouts in his final 50 games and finished third in the American League in Rookie of the Year voting despite being called up midway through the season.

This was as scary as it got for the Lightning

Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) celebrates along with defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (98) following the Lightning's win over the Islanders in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup semifinals series.
Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy (88) celebrates along with defenseman Mikhail Sergachev (98) following the Lightning's win over the Islanders in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup semifinals series. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

For the first time in two years, the Lightning were 60 minutes away from seeing their season end. The New York Islanders pushed Tampa Bay to Game 7 in the Stanley Cup semifinal round, but the Lightning prevailed 1-0 on a Yanni Gourde shorthanded goal in the second period and a stellar effort from goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. “He’s the best in the world for a reason,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “He’s the steady rock that allows us to go out there and play with pace, play with confidence, play with the lead, and I thought we did an unbelievable job of that.”

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In case you forgot, Matt Andriese threw the last one

Rays pitcher Ryan Yarbrough (48) bumps fists with catcher Mike Zunino (10) after the sixth inning of a game against the New York Yankees on June 3 at Yankee Stadium.
Rays pitcher Ryan Yarbrough (48) bumps fists with catcher Mike Zunino (10) after the sixth inning of a game against the New York Yankees on June 3 at Yankee Stadium. [ KATHY WILLENS | Associated Press ]

The best place for a Rays starting pitcher to hide? The ninth inning. Nobody ever looks for them there. The Rays went five years, and a major-league-record 731 games, without a pitcher going the distance before Ryan Yarbrough threw a complete game on June 3 against the Yankees. Yarbrough gave up six hits, including two solo homers, while throwing 113 pitches.

That Brady fella was a good investment

For the first time in franchise history, the Bucs sold out Raymond James Stadium before the season even opened.

Nothing to be ashamed of here

The University of Tampa dugout looks on as the final outs are recorded in the Spartans' loss to Central Missouri in the Division II World Series semifinals.
The University of Tampa dugout looks on as the final outs are recorded in the Spartans' loss to Central Missouri in the Division II World Series semifinals. [ BRETT FRIEDLANDER | Special to the Times ]

The University of Tampa baseball team was the reigning national champion in Division II in 2020 but did not get a chance to repeat when the season was wiped out by the pandemic. The Spartans were not as stacked in 2021, but still made it back to the World Series before losing 3-1 to Central Missouri in the semifinals. “This group was amazing,” coach Joe Urso said. “They fought and fought. We just ran out of gas.”

Nothing to be ashamed of here, Part II

Oklahoma's Tiare Jennings (23) scores on a wild pitch in front of Florida State catcher Anna Shelnutt (13) during the final game of the Women's College World Series June 10 in Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma's Tiare Jennings (23) scores on a wild pitch in front of Florida State catcher Anna Shelnutt (13) during the final game of the Women's College World Series June 10 in Oklahoma City. [ SUE OGROCKI | AP ]

Three years after winning the national title, the FSU softball team was back in the World Series. The Seminoles reached the championship game before losing 5-1 to heavily favored Oklahoma.

Words to remember

“I actually hope that, like, one day, videos like this and the whole coming-out process are just not necessary. But until then, I’m going to do my best and do my part to cultivate a culture that’s accepting and that’s compassionate.” Former Buc Carl Nassib on becoming the first openly gay player in the NFL.

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“I’m happy. I feel free now.” Rays infielder Yandy Diaz joking after his first home run in more than 200 regular season at-bats.

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“I’m one lucky guy and can’t wait to get back out there (whenever that is)!” Rays minor league pitcher Tyler Zombro on Twitter after getting hit in the head by a line drive and spending four days in intensive care following brain surgery.

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“I guess it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if, two years in a row, I wouldn’t be there when we lifted the Cup.” Lightning owner Jeff Vinik revealing on the eve of the Stanley Cup final that he would be unable to attend Game 6 if the series went that long because his son, Danny, was getting married that weekend in Rhode Island.

On second thought

Bucs outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett (58) celebrates after defensive end Ndamukong Suh forced New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones (8) into an incompletion during a game in November in Tampa.
Bucs outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett (58) celebrates after defensive end Ndamukong Suh forced New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones (8) into an incompletion during a game in November in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Bucs linebacker Shaquil Barrett was feeling feisty after getting a $34.25 million guaranteed contract in June. “I want to be Defensive Player of the Year, and they might give me MVP because of my season, which should be MVP level,” Barrett said. “I’m coming, man. I won’t be denied this year.” Barrett was not in the NFL’s top 10 in sacks through the first 13 weeks of the season.

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