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Wander Franco returns to Rays lineup

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ST. PETERSBURG — Acknowledging a need to better control his emotions after being benched for two games, Wander Franco returned to the Rays’ lineup on Saturday afternoon.

The Rays’ star shortstop immediately made his presence felt in his return, going 2-for-4 with a home run as one of the only bright spots in their 9-4 loss to the Royals at Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay’s fifth defeat in the last seven games.

Benched for disciplinary reasons, Franco sat out Tampa Bay’s 6-5 loss on Thursday night and 11-3 win on Friday night. In his first at-bat back, he smashed a Statcast-projected 417-foot homer — his ninth of the season — to center field off starter Jordan Lyles. He added an RBI single up the middle in the second inning as the Rays built a 4-0 lead.

“There’s no denying he’s a really good player, and he really makes our team — a good team — that much better,” manager Kevin Cash said.

Right-hander Yonny Chirinos coughed up the Rays’ early lead, however, allowing eight runs on nine hits over 5 1/3 innings. Then the bats went quiet, as Lyles (0-11 with a 6.72 ERA entering the day) and Kansas City’s bullpen retired Tampa Bay’s final 17 batters in order.

“I think we’re in a tough stretch right now. Wins just haven’t come easy for us,” Cash said. “Felt good about yesterday, and then today, give the Royals credit. They put it to us, beat us in every part of the game.”

On Thursday, Cash called Franco “a young player that is learning and dealing with the challenges of being a Major League player and some of the frustrations that come with it” and noted were times that he did not appropriately handle his frustration in the way the Rays ask their players to “uphold being the best teammate.”

Franco said he addressed his situation with “a lot of the front office people” and plans to apologize individually to the teammates or staff members who were affected by his behavior.

“I think they’re doing a good job in the way they’ve controlled the situation,” Franco said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “I’ve been with this organization for a long time, and I think they controlled the situation well with the errors that I’ve made.”

Cash acknowledged on Saturday that Franco’s growth in that regard may take time and expressed the organization’s ongoing support for the 22-year-old star.

“This is not a ‘flip-a-switch’ thought,” Cash said. “Wander’s going to put good work in — confident in that — and this will take shape over the course of probably our season.”

The Rays maintained that Franco’s discipline was not the result of one specific incident, but rather a series of them. The switch-hitting star has occasionally lacked hustle on the bases and in the field, and he’s slammed his equipment on the field and reacted angrily in the dugout after results he didn’t like at the plate. He also got into at least one argument with a teammate, as he and Randy Arozarena exchanged words in the dugout last month.

Asked what he learned from his two-game absence, Franco said through Navarro, “Just be able to better control my emotions and just find a way to help the team with that.

“I think it’s a situation that, in God’s hands, can be controlled,” he added. “In my opinion, I think I’ve just got to be able to control the situations because I know they’re my problem.”

Franco said a number of his teammates reached out to support him — he got a big hug from Jose Siri in front of his locker after speaking to reporters — but singled out starter Zach Eflin as being particularly kind.

Eflin said he saw at the beginning of the year that Franco “was someone that needed to be loved, and I just went up to him with open arms and kind of explained that everybody cares about him, everybody loves him.”

Signed to the largest free-agent contract in franchise history over the winter, Eflin said he viewed it as part of his job to build relationships with his teammates, foster a strong clubhouse culture and share some of what he learned during his years in Philadelphia. The 29-year-old pitcher found common personal ground with Franco and went from there.

“I started to get to know him more, ask him about his family, and it’s kind of turned into a really cool relationship that we have,” Eflin said. “We’re trying to keep him in the moment as much as possible, but I’m also very thankful that he has such good things to say about me.

“It’s going to be important to get Wander in with all of us. He needs to be able to trust everybody in the locker room, and we’re going to do everything we can to do that.”

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