Brandon Finnegan pitched in the College World Series in June. Now he's helping the Kansas City Royals try to win a world championship in October.
SAN FRANCISCO – AT&T Park was built on a relatively small parcel of land hard by San Francisco Bay, and to maximize space its architects situated its bullpens in foul territory. That means that visiting relievers must warm up well within earshot of the heckling tech executives who occupy the pricey seats down the first base line, as 21-year-old Brandon Finnegan discovered on Friday night.
Finnegan can throw a baseball 95 miles an hour with his left arm, but one attribute with which he is not blessed is height. He is listed at 5-foot-11, and he says he is 5-11, but he is perhaps only 5-11 when wearing two-inch spikes. As he prepared to enter Game 3 of this World Series last Friday, his stature provided most of the ammunition for the Giants fans who were sitting mere feet away. “You’re too short to ride this ride!” one yelled, in an attempt to rattle him.
His repertoire, though, is not his only strength. “He’s got stuff, and he’s got composure,” said Royals closer Greg Holland, who is 28. “He doesn’t let situations get the best of him. It’s kind of a rare find for a guy as young as him. I wish I’d learned that at 21.” An amused Finnegan flashed a thumbs-up at his belittler. Then he entered the bottom of the seventh inning of a game his Royals led 3-2 and, with one out and a man on first, he threw nine pitches with which he induced Juan Perez to fly out to leftfield and then struck out Brandon Crawford, putting an end to San Francisco's final threat of the night.
It was the latest gentle curve on a four-month rollercoaster for which Finnegan had seemed to be not too short, but uniquely qualified. In early June, the Royals made him the 17th pick in the draft, as a junior out of Texas Christian University. Less than two weeks later, he led the Horned Frogs to their second ever appearance in the College World Series. On Friday, he helped to secure the Royals’ second World Series win in 29 years and a 2-games-to-1 over the Giants, becoming the first person ever to play in both varieties of World Series in a single year. The Hall of Fame requested his cap. “I’ve fulfilled two dreams in one year,” he said.
Morning arrived on Saturday. Royals manager Ned Yost again called on Finnegan in a close game – Game 5 was tied at at 4-4 when he entered at the beginning of the bottom of the sixth – but the result proved very different. Finnegan immediately allowed two soft singles, by Joaquin Arias and Gregor Blanco, and then, after a sacrifice bunt, an intentional walk and a fielder’s choice, two hard ones, by Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Belt. To start the next inning, Finnegan gave up an infield single to Brandon Crawford and walked Mike Morse. Then he was pulled.
Finnegan had thrown 32 pitches, which the Giants had eventually converted into five runs (two more than he had yielded over his 13 previous big league innings), five hits, two walks and, on the official score sheet, a loss credited to his name. After it was over, and San Francisco's 11-4 win had knotted the series at two games apiece, Finnegan remained composed, even as reporters peppered him with questions that were harder than the previous evening’s.
“That’s how baseball is,” he said, philosophically. “It’ll pick you up real quick and kick you in the guts real quick, too. That’s just part of the game. Everybody knows how it is, and how to react to it. It’s nothing nobody on this team can’t handle.”
Kansas City had to hope that Finnegan could absorb the Giants’ shots to his abdomen. Despite Saturday’s result and despite his inexperience, he remains a critical piece of a club that now finds itself in a best-of-three series, with a long-awaited championship on the line.
If Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Holland are the Royals bullpen’s Three Musketeers – their Athos, Porthos and Aramis – then Finnegan is their d’Artagnan, the young upstart who seeks to join their ranks. Yost confirmed Finnegan’s status when he discussed the silver linings of his club’s 7-1 Game 1 loss. That it proved an early blowout had not only allowed him to save the arms of Herrera, Davis and Holland for another day, but Finnegan’s, too. “I didn’t want to bring Finnegan in,” Yost said, revealingly.
The Royals’ favored formula for deploying their pitchers is now chiseled into stone. They aim for six solid innings from their starter, and then an inning from Herrera, another from Davis and a final one from Holland. That formula, though, has mostly eluded them even in a postseason during which they’ve now won 10 of their 12 games. Kansas City's starters have completed the sixth inning just three times, all of them in a four-day stretch during their ALDS sweep of the Angels.
Even as Herrera, Davis and Holland combined for a regular season ERA of 1.28, the Royals' overall bullpen ERA was 3.30, 10th-best in the majors. The team lacked not just a bridge to its dominating trio, but a backup if one of its members faltered, and that is what Finnegan provided after he debuted, straight from Double A Northwest Arkansas, on Sept. 6.
He did it by convincing himself that the task at hand was no different from the one he had faced in college a few months earlier. After he has completed his warmup pitches, he turns around, wipes the sweat off his forehead and glances at the rightfield foul pole, just as he always did at TCU. “I’ll take a deep breath and say, ‘Let’s go’,” he said. “Every team has a foul pole, so that’s how I do it. That’s when I’m really locked in and ready to go.”
“That’s what’s helping me out here,” he added. “I’m taking it like it’s still college baseball, facing hitters. It’s no different. It’s still baseball. Mound’s just as far away.”
There were, to be sure, a few differences (“Crowds in Omaha definitely don’t chirp at you the way crowds do here,” he said), but the outcomes were similar – until Saturday night. “Made good pitches, and they hit it soft enough but just hard enough to get it in,” Finnegan said. “They got theirs tonight, but we’ll get our tomorrow.”
“It’s nothing I can’t handle,” he said. “Yeah, it’s nothing I can’t handle.”
Yost, too, remained optimistic. “It just didn’t work tonight,” he said. “It doesn’t work every night, you know. Most nights we do a pretty good job doing it. It just didn’t work tonight.”
Finnegan felt certain that one unfortunate evening would not jeopardize his standing with his manager going forward. “One bad outing out of a month and a half, two months I’ve been here, that’s going to happen,” he said. In truth, Yost’s continued faith in him is a not only a matter of choice, but of necessity. He still needs that bridge to his shutdown triumvirate, and his other options – the 37-year-old Jason Frasor, the diminutive Tim Collins and longman Danny Duffy – are unlikely to provide it due to issues with stuff, performance and role, respectively.
So, with at least two games left in this World Series, the pivotal task will likely again come down to Finnegan, who insisted that Saturday’s wake-up was only ephemeral. “I’m still dreaming,” he said. “Still 21, three months out of college and in the World Series. It’s still part of the dream. You’re going to have times where you get set back a little bit.