June 17, 2014

Royals top draft pick Brandon Finnegan’s focus is TCU title

TCU pitcher Brandon Finnegan is locked in on helping the Horned Frogs win an NCAA baseball championship. Then he’ll think about his future at the Royals’ top draft selection.

The night the Royals made him their first draft selection, Brandon Finnegan celebrated with his family, cried a bit, then went back to work.

“To be honest, I’ve been kind of busy,” Finnegan said.

What with trying to win a national championship and all.

Finnegan took the ball for TCU on Tuesday evening against Virginia in a winner’s bracket game at the College World Series. It marked his second start since the June 5 draft, the first since beating Pepperdine in the opening round of the Super Regional.

He gave the Horned Frogs a solid outing, leaving the game after eight innings with the game 2-2. Virginia ended up winning the game 3-2 in 15 innings.

Finnegan struck out five and walked two. He surrendered nine hits but mostly worked his way out of any trouble.

The Horned Frogs are in the College World Series for the second time. They reached the semifinals in 2010 and are looking to take the next step behind a stout pitching staff that entered the NCAA Tournament leading the nation in team ERA at 2.19.

Finnegan helped that figure at 2.12 and he ranked second nationally in strikeouts per nine innings at 11.89, while posting a 9-3 record.

He arrived at those numbers on a steady path of improvement since landing in Fort Worth.

“He started his college career as a guy with a big arm,” Horned Frogs coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “He’s turned into a pitcher.”

One that powers his fast ball to 94-95 mph and has hit 97 mph. Finnegan also has developed an effective change up and curve in college.

Finnegan relied on that fastball to post a 4-5 record and 3.47 ERA as a freshman.

From a record standpoint, Finnegan’s sophomore year was a disaster — 0-8 in 15 starts. But he improved his ERA to 3.18 as TCU struggled to a seventh-place finish in the Big 12.

“I still didn’t have a good secondary pitch last year,” Finnegan said. “My slider was more like a slurve.”

But Finnegan’s aha moment came last summer, playing for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. Also on the team was North Carolina State left-hander Carlos Rodon, who possessed one of the nastiest sliders in college baseball.

Finnegan asked Rodon, whom the White Sox made the third pick in the draft this month, about his grip and release, and a new weapon was born. It was used immediately. Finnegan shut down the Cuban National Team, tossing seven shutout innings and scattering three hits in a 1-0 victory. His slider dazzled and his confidence soared, carrying into his junior year.

“The first pitch I threw last fall was 97,” Finnegan said. “I’d always thrown hard, I used to be an outfielder, but my velocity had really jumped.”

Major-league teams took notice, and they also liked his work ethic. Finnegan is 5-foot-11, not the ideal height for a power pitcher, but he’s worked hard in the weight room and he said durability has never been an issue. And TCU has made sure to keep Finnegan fresh, never allowing him to throw more than 116 pitches in a game this season.

But there was a late season scare. Finnegan left an April 25 game early and skipped his next start with stiff shoulder. Schlossnagle said holding out Finnegan was a precaution, and he proved there were no worries as Finnegan was built back up to full speed, pitching 71/3 innings against Siena and 61/3 against Pepperdine in the NCAA Tournament.

Still, it made for rising nerves as the draft approached.

“There was talk about me going top 10, so maybe it had an effect,” Finnegan said. “I really had no clue where I was going, but I’m very happy where I went.”

The Royals, with the 17th selection, took a left-handed pitcher with its first pick for the first time since 2004.

When he signs — commanding a signing bonus of around $2 million — there’s no telling Finnegan’s path through the organization. Right-hander Kyle Zimmer, the Royals’ 2012 first-round selection out of the University of San Francisco, finished his first season at Kane County, spent most of last year at Wilmington and finished at Class AA Northwest Arkansas. He’s currently recovering from a strain in his right latissimus dorsi muscle.

First things first for Finnegan.

“What I’m thinking about right now is a national championship,” he said.

To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to Follow him on Twitter @BlairKerkhoff.

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