The rapid rise of Brandon Finnegan

FORT WORTH, Texas -- He is 500 miles away, a universe from the frat boys popping fireworks outside and the Chipotle on S. Hulen Street where they used to scarf down burritos. But Brandon Finnegan is still very near. He just sent one of his old TCU baseball teammates a Snapchat photo of himself wearing his Kansas City Royals uniform, right before Game 1 of the American League Division Series. That's Finny, constantly tethered to his phone, even when he's looking out at 45,000 fans piling into Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California.

It's Thursday night in college land, and eight young men in faded T-shirts sit in front of a TV in an off-campus house that is surprisingly tidy, except for the various fast-food cups on the living room table. At some point tonight, Finnegan, a 21-year-old lefty with boyish brown locks curled under his ball cap, might pitch. And it's still so hard for them to grasp.

On Aug. 31, Finnegan texted Connor Castellano, one of his college roommates, to tell him he'd be home the next day. The minor league season in northwest Arkansas was ending, and Finnegan figured he was finished playing baseball for the year. "You're about to live your dream," Castellano told him, trying to be encouraging. It had been a long summer. In three months, Finnegan had worn three uniforms: one for TCU, which made it to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska; and two at minor league stops in Wilmington, Delaware, and Springdale, Arkansas.

A few hours after that text to Castellano, the Royals called, and the rest is history. Finnegan went to New York and struck out Derek Jeter. He did the same to Big Papi in Kansas City. It was an exhilarating and bizarre month, but it was nothing compared with what happened last week. In a Sept. 30 wild-card elimination game against the Oakland A's, Finnegan was called from the bullpen in the 10th inning of a tie game. He calmly held the Athletics scoreless for two innings, helping rescue the Royals in their first postseason game in nearly three decades.

Because Kansas City fell into a 7-3 hole that night, and because teams don't generally stake their playoff hopes on young pitchers barely removed from Double-A ball, some of Finnegan's friends went to bed early. They had classes the next day and an offseason weightlifting session looming at 6:30 a.m. But one by one, they were jostled out of bed as Finnegan kept mowing down batters.

TCU pitcher Travis Evans had told his roommates, who were imbibing that night, to keep it down because he had to get up early. But then they busted into his room with the news that Finnegan was in the game.

"And I'm not buying it," Evans says, recalling the night. "I go out there, it's the top of the 10th and Finny's sitting there throwing 93 mph right up the middle. So I sat there the rest of the game in my boxers while my dog was running around."

Anyone who knows Finnegan at TCU saw this coming, just not in the autumn of 2014. Baseball is slow and methodical. Finnegan's ascension was as fast as a storm front rolling across the plains. Only he's so unbelievably calm. That's why he's here, texting them from various ballparks across the country while they're in study hall. "I miss y'all," he'll type.

He's here because he's fanatical. His old teammates can go on and on about all the crazy things Finnegan would do just to make sure he didn't break routine; the parking spaces he'd wait an hour for, the food he'd eat. At TCU, the team meal was always at Hoffbrau Steaks, a local joint near the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo that is touted as the best-priced little steakhouse in Texas. Finnegan would show up at the restaurant at least an hour early. He sat at the same seat and ate the same thing every time -- tilapia, no salad, Dr Pepper and rolls with no butter. One time, when the restaurant was rearranged and his table was gone, Finnegan proceeded to slide another table to its spot, replacing all the salads, plates and silverware.

The room erupts in laughter when his teammates recall the look on the waitress's face as she incredulously asked Finnegan, "What are you doing?"

"One of the weirdest things to think about," TCU infielder Garrett Crain says, "is that he's pitching in the major league playoffs, and we're going to school the next day. And we were just playing, just messing around with him a couple months ago."

That afternoon before the wild-card game against the A's, Gary and Betty Finnegan took their son out to lunch at The Cheesecake Factory on the Plaza in Kansas City. Terrance Gore, a speedy 5-foot-7 baserunner who played with Finnegan this past summer in Class A Wilmington, accompanied them. As they were getting ready to leave, Gary Finnegan told his son to be prepared because he might get called on that night to face a left-handed hitter or two, maybe Adam Dunn or Josh Reddick.

The prospect of Finnegan pitching that night still seemed unlikely; the Royals not only were starting ace James Shields but have possibly the best bullpen combination in baseball with Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Still, when his father floated the possibility, Finnegan quickly replied.

"I'm ready," he said.

It could be said that Gary Finnegan had been preparing his son for this moment for most of his life. Gary, a former pitcher who said he had to quit after two years at TCU because of an arm injury, started Brandon playing baseball at 4. Every time the little boy was on the baseball field, he was smiling.

His parents promised they'd spend all the money they had to help Finnegan pursue his baseball dreams as long as he was passionate. "Effectively wild" was how Finnegan was described coming out of high school in Fort Worth.

Finnegan's fastball, which by then was in the mid-90s, was essentially his only successful pitch. He threw a slow, loopy breaking ball and had no change-up.

"I mean, he threw other pitches," TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said, "but they weren't very good."

He made big strides his sophomore season, but the Horned Frogs didn't, going 29-28. Finnegan posted a 3.18 ERA, but went 0-8 with very little run support. Although he was frustrated, his teammates said he never called anyone out.

That spring, Finnegan was invited to join the USA Baseball collegiate national team. Schlossnagle was USA Baseball's manager. On a bus ride to practice that first day, Finnegan began to second-guess himself. "What am I doing here?" he said as he sized up the rest of the team's loaded roster. "I didn't even win a game."

Schlossnagle acknowledges that his young pitcher's confidence was shaky before that summer. It wasn't that he was afraid; he just didn't have enough pitches he was confident in. In July that year, USA Baseball had a practice on a Sunday at Wrigley Field in which Schlossnagle and Finnegan were talking about his frustrations with his breaking ball. The coach spotted Carlos Rodon, a phenom from NC State who was standing in center field.

"I said, 'Finny, I don't know what to tell you, man,'" Schlossnagle said. "'I'm not a left-handed pitcher, and that guy right there, he's supposed to have the best breaking ball in college baseball. Why don't you just go ask him?'

"So he literally walked over to Carlos, and you saw him showing him how he holds the ball, and they started to play catch. And over the course of the next three weeks, he picked it up real quick."

A few days after his tutorial with Rodon, Finnegan helped Team USA beat Cuba 1-0, scattering three hits in seven innings. He was so pleased with that outing that, for the next year, he watched tape of the Cuba game before every one of his starts.

"He took off," Schlossnagle said.

"Once all that came together for him, then it was just Katy, bar the door and look out."

The Horned Frogs saw Finnegan cry twice in 2014. He sobbed when TCU was eliminated from the College World Series. He was also very emotional when the Royals took him as the No. 17 pick in Major League Baseball's first-year player draft. Teammates estimate there were at least 100 people in Finnegan's house for the draft party, some of whom he'd known since the fifth grade.

The players had to leave the party to do a grip-and-grin at an alumni function, but when they heard that Finnegan had been drafted, they rushed out to be with him.

About two months before that, Finnegan had a huge scare. He was pitching against Cal State Northridge when he had to leave the game with pain in his throwing shoulder. Finnegan, projected to be drafted as high as possibly the top 10, momentarily feared the worst. But his MRI was clear -- it was speculated he might have slept wrong on his arm -- and he was quickly back in the rotation.

Schlossnagle is big on mental imagery and strict routine. A man can't control the crowds, the noise or the batters he's facing, but he can trust his routine. When Finnegan gets up on the rubber, he takes a deep breath, gets his sign, then takes another deep breath.

"When I'm on the mound, I can't really hear anything," Finnegan said. "That's just when I'm in the zone.

"That's what my routine helps me do; the big breaths I take when I'm on the mound help me be in the moment. When the adrenaline is pumping, it just helps me forget about what's around me and focus on the batter."

The Royals' 2014 regular season had been a combination of brilliance and utterly frustrating mediocrity. They won 10 in a row in June, then dropped six of seven. They were world-beaters; they were flatlining with a listless offense.

Finnegan, meanwhile, was consistently impressive in the minors, putting together a 1.33 ERA and a 6.50 strikeout-to-walk ratio. When Finnegan signed with the Royals, general manager Dayton Moore said he wasn't going to put any limitations on him, but a big league promotion this year seemed unlikely.

Moore, who also spent more than a decade in the Atlanta Braves' organization, can think of just one other pitcher who has ascended this fast on his watch, Joey Devine. The rookie joined the Braves' roster in August 2005, then became the first pitcher in major league history to surrender a grand slam in each of his first two outings.

But Moore believes that, in every minor league system, there are several pitchers who have the stuff to get major league hitters out. "But what it comes down to," Moore said, "is do they have the conviction in their pitches and the desire to compete?

"You can sit back behind the plate and you can evaluate his stuff with relative sureness. You can say that that type of stuff will get major league hitters out for the next 15 years. But you don't know what's inside the kid's heart and his head until he gets out there and starts performing."

The Royals got a glimpse of Finnegan's mental makeup during his first trip to New York in September. He struck out Jacoby Ellsbury and didn't even realize Jeter was up next because he had his back to the mound. When the crowd erupted, he knew Jeter must be at the plate. He struck him out with a 94 mph fastball.

But in the Kansas City clubhouse, Finnegan was still a rookie. He had to know his place. Pitcher Scott Downs said the veterans occasionally called him "Flanagan" just to have fun with him.

"From day one since he's been here, he's done what every rookie's been told to do," Downs said. "Keep your ears open and your mouth shut. He goes about his business; he does his work; and on the mound, he's shown everything that they saw in him when they drafted him.

"He's earned a lot of respect from a lot of guys early on, and that says a lot."

Finnegan bought a 2015 Escalade recently, and his TCU buddies say it cost $90,000. Finnegan is quite enamored by the SUV and has sent pictures of it to his friends back home. Outfielder Cody Jones calls the ride "sick," which is youth slang for very cool.

Finnegan's season started months ago, on Valentine's Day, when he pitched against Jacksonville University. Back then, his worries seemed minor. He was obsessed with winning, sure. He also wanted to beat fellow pitcher Preston Morrison out for the most Frog Points, which are amassed by statistics such a first-pitch strikes. The players used to get little helmet stickers, but mostly, it's just for pride.

Finnegan would drive himself nuts trying to get those Frog Points. That's how competitive he was. He hit home runs in batting practice. On Saturday mornings after he'd pitch, he'd shag balls and sprint around the outfield, nearly diving while his teammates jogged around. Schlossnagle, fearing his prized player could get injured, quickly put an end to it. He told Finnegan to stand still. But Finnegan never could.

And that, his TCU teammates say, is why he's here now. Why they're watching the playoffs on a Thursday night.

"I wonder if he still power-shags like he used to," one of them says.

Eventually, after a couple of hours and a slow-moving game, they start to disperse. They have papers due tomorrow; they have weights to lift. Besides, Finnegan probably won't pitch anyway, they figure, because he was pretty sore after the A's outing.

But in the seventh inning, he's called upon again and retires two batters in an 11-inning, 3-2 Royals victory. The game ends around midnight in Fort Worth. It's funny that it's past the college kids' bedtimes.

Late one night a couple of weeks ago, one of Finnegan's former teammates sent a Snapchat video of a party they were attending. The room was bouncing; the phone was shaking; and his friends were living like college boys do. Finnegan sent his own little video back. He scanned through the clubhouse and shook his phone around to be funny. The place was empty.

"I'm sure he misses [college] a little bit," Evans says.

"But he's probably not complaining where he's at."