This ballpark consists of red bricks, wind-whipped World Series banners and orange Giants hoodies, hard by McCovey Cove and nearly 1,700 miles west of TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, the stadium where Brandon Finnegan set his sights upon as last winter thawed.
How could he have imagined his presence here? Could anyone? Before his appearance on Friday night, before Finnegan secured two critical outs in a 3-2 Royals victory over San Francisco in the third game of the World Series, no man before him had ever completed such a feat.
“I definitely did not have this in mind,” Finnegan said.
In June, Finnegan led his Texas Christian University club to the College World Series. In July, the Royals selected him in the first round of the MLB Draft. In October, on a idyllic Friday night at AT&T Park, Finnegan became the first player in baseball history to play on college’s grandest stage and in the Fall Classic in the same season.
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The setting could not have been more momentous. Finnegan, the 21-year-old southpaw, arrived in the seventh inning of a one-run game with the tying run at first base. In order to secure a 2-1 advantage in this World Series, manager Ned Yost sent his club on a rollercoaster before calling upon Finnegan.
“That just shows you how composed he is as a person and as a pitcher,” third baseman Mike Moustakas said. “To come out there in that situation, get some huge outs for us and keep us ahead.”
The Royals now stand two wins away from their first championship since 1985. Finnegan wasn’t born until 1993. He arrived as a September call-up and stabilized the team’s bullpen. He earned the trust of manager Ned Yost, a faith that Yost displayed on Friday as he allowed Finnegan to build a bridge to Wade Davis and Greg Holland.
Yost likes to joke that his relievers make his job easy. If the team holds a lead after six innings, he says, he does not even have to think. The third game of the World Series presented a more complex challenge, one Yost attacked with unorthodox thinking and his relentless relief corps.
Rather than paper over the sixth inning with his middle relievers, as he indicated before the game he would, he turned to Kelvin Herrera to eradicate a mess created by Jeremy Guthrie, who was charged with two runs in five innings. Rather than execute a double-switch, he let Herrera bat for the first time in his professional career. The Giants whittled a three-run lead to just one to ratchet up the tension.
For Finnegan, the ride featured a few bumps. His heart jumped when pinch-hitter Juan Perez laced a sinker into left field to start his appearance.
“I thought it was going to get down,” Finnegan said. “But then I realized the wind here keeps it up in the air.”
Alex Gordon settled beneath it. Finnegan fired fastballs at shortstop Brandon Crawford. When Crawford swung through the last 95-mph seed, Finnegan pounded his glove and his teammates erupted. They knew what followed, as did the Giants and the 43,020 fans crammed inside here. The best chance for the San Francisco had passed.
The bullpen trio inspires such confidence in Yost. He now operates with impunity, impervious to criticism, unafraid of mistakes. Until the sixth inning on Friday, he also appeared incapable of pulling the wrong lever. At the start of the game, he rejiggered both his outfield and his lineup. Shifted into right field, Lorenzo Cain responded with two stylish catches. Bumped into the No. 2 spot, Alex Gordon smashed an RBI double in the sixth inning for his first hit of the World Series.
Gordon’s knock doubled the Royals’ lead, eased the tension inside their dugout and reduced the volume inside this park. It also punted Giants starter Tim Hudson from the game. In came lefty specialist Javier Lopez, who embarked on an 11-pitch seesaw with Eric Hosmer that ended when Hosmer smoked an RBI single up the middle.
“It’s a testament to his tenacity in that situation,” Yost said.
So Guthrie jogged onto the mound with a three-run lead on his shoulders. He had given up two hits all evening, only to watch Crawford roll a leadoff single into right. Giants manager Bruce Bochy pulled Michael Morse off the bench and sent him to the plate. Morse is the lone threat not featured in the Giants lineup, the only backup worthy of the Royals concern.
Morse showed his worth against Guthrie. He raked an RBI double past third baseman Mike Moustakas. Yost had seen enough from Guthrie, who dueled with Tim Hudson at the start. Each veteran was making his World Series debut. Guthrie benefited from those around him.
“When you have great defense and you have lock-down bullpen pitching, you have a tendency to be in these type of games,” Guthrie said. “And that’s what we’ve had throughout the season. And fortunately for us right now, we’ve got guys throwing the ball great in the back end of the bullpen, and able to hold those small leads.”
Earlier in the day, Yost remarked on how the schedule here in San Francisco, with three games in a row for the first time in weeks, would affect his bullpen usage. In the moment, though, he reverted to the men who carried him here. That meant Herrera. He had thrown 32 pitches in game two, which was his fourth multi-inning assignment this postseason. His fifth awaited him, even if two left-handed hitters were in his way, the ideal opposition for Finnegan.
“My mindset was I’m not getting beaten in the sixth inning with the bullpen I’ve got,” Yost said.
Herrera lost the handle on his fastball and gifted a four-pitch walk to Gregor Blanco. A weak grounder advanced both runners and Morse scored on a groundout by Buster Posey. Pablo Sandoval grounded out to end the frame – and put Herrera in position to bat.
Herrera was due up fourth in the inning. Batting third was Jarrod Dyson. Yost admitted later he would have preferred Dyson make an out. Instead he singled up the middle. Herrera borrowed a bat from Alcides Escobar and stepped in against Giants reliever Sergio Romo.
What followed was, in the words of Cain, “hilarious.” Herrera struck out on three pitches. He took a comical swing on a slider for the third strike. Then he removed his helmet and stripped off his batting gloves. In between innings, Herrera had convinced Yost he could handle another inning of work.
“How you feeling?” Yost asked.
Great, Herrera replied.
“Can you give me a good inning?” Yost asked.
Herrera responded in the affirmative, but then he gave up a leadoff walk to Hunter Pence. Finnegan idled in the bullpen as Yost let Herrera face left-handed-hitting first baseman Brandon Belt. When Belt struck out, Yost turned back to the kid.
The bullpens reside within full view of the spectators here. As Finnegan stood there, he heard fans heckling him. One criticized his height. Finnegan responded with a thumbs up. An inning later, he celebrated on the mound.
Inside the clubhouse, Finnegan picked up his phone. He estimated he had about 70 text messages. He cleared his phone and set it aside. When he picked it up again, 50 new messages awaited him.
Such is life for a 21-year-old, one aware of the scope of his achievement, even if he is not awed by it. When the Royals convened in Surprise, Ariz., in February, Finnegan was balancing college classes with bullpen sessions. With two more victories, Finnegan can celebrate with the World Series champions.
“Once this season’s over with, and I’m back home hanging out, I probably will (reflect),” Finnegan said. “But until then, I’ve still got a lot of work to do.”