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Mudville: May 28, 2024 7:44 am PDT

Brandon Finnegan

"Those guys made me feel like family"

For  better or worse, baseball is a game of numbers.

There have been over 23,000 people who have suited up in a Major League Baseball game over the past 150 years and the number of players who have competed on the NCAA Division I level in the College World Series era is estimated to be well north of a half million.

Considering those numbers, it’s pretty mind-boggling to stand alone with an accomplishment that ties those together.

But ten years ago this fall, Brandon Finnegan did something that nobody has done before or since: pitch in the NCAA Division I World Series and the MLB World Series in the same year.

Pretty damn impressive.

Finnegan wasn’t out there pitching in mop-up duty either. He gave up just one run in seven dominant regular season outings as the Royals pushed towards the postseason and took the mound in every round of the playoffs, notching four scoreless appearances along the way.

That was after going 9-3 with a 2.04 ERA, 1.022 WHIP and 11.4 strikeouts for a Texas Christian team that went 48-18 and won a game at the College World Series.

A trade away from the Royals and shoulder injuries sidetracked his promising career and even if he doesn’t return to the Majors—Finnegan isn’t officially retired—it can never take away his spot in baseball history.

In the baseball world, not many people had a better year than Finnegan in 2014. In the span of four months, he went from the College World Series to becoming the 17th overall pick in the draft. Then made his Big League debut at Yankee Stadium, striking out Derek Jeter in the first inning he ever pitched. He capped it all off by with successful high-leverage appearances in the playoffs.

Join us this week as we relive all that and more as we go Spitballin’ with Brandon Finnegan.

Brandon Finnegan #29 of the Cincinnati Reds is seen in the dugout during the game against the New York Yankees at Great American Ball Park on May 9, 2017 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Finnegan! We’re at the 10-year anniversary of your historic 2014 season and we’ll talk a lot about that for sure. But first could you take us back to your childhood and tell us what baseball was like for you as a kid?

I grew up in a baseball family. I have a brother two years older than me and he got into baseball before me. As a younger brother, you feed off that energy you get from your older siblings. My dad played baseball his entire life. He got drafted out of high school and played at TCU, but he ended up getting hurt. He taught us the game. I was about four years old when I started playing and I fell in love with it. I played all sports, but I was never a football or basketball guy myself. Growing up in Fort Worth, we were Rangers fans. As I got older, me and my brother really loved Michael Young. We even wore number 10 for him growing up. Then once Josh Hamilton came to Texas, he was my favorite player. I was a left-handed outfielder and mimicked my game after him. My favorite pitcher growing up was Randy Johnson.

That’s great about your dad. That’s the same path you followed; getting drafted out of high school and then going to TCU instead. Did your dad’s path influence your path?

Not at all actually, and he was a left-handed pitcher too! We actually grew up Texas fans because my dad’s dad was a big Longhorns fan. As I started to develop, I went to camps, but I think Texas thought they were too cool for me, so I went to the Mizzou and Baylor camps instead. I got the MVP of the Mizzou camp and Tony Vitello, the Mizzou pitching coach, had just gotten hired by TCU. He called me and said he was recruiting me for Missouri and TCU and asked me to come throw for Coach [Jim] Schlossnagle at TCU. I said, “Sure!” I was away at the lake with my family, so I packed my stuff and went back to TCU. I got there and threw one pitch. Schloss came out and said, “Who the hell are you?!” The rest is history. At the time, I had offers from OU and Baylor too. I had never actually really seen much of TCU and I lived down the street from campus. Once I stepped foot on campus and watched their practice, I was like, “Yea, this is where I want to go.”

 It was fun to play with the top players in the country, especially having “USA” across your chest.

Pretty amazing it worked out like that. Ten years ago was your historic 2014 season. At TCU, you made the College World Series. You picked up a huge win in the Super Regionals against Pepperdine and pitched really well in that crazy 15-inning game against Virginia in the World Series. I know it’s probably hard to summarize, but can you talk about that 2014 season at TCU?

It was awesome. Right before I got to TCU was when they started their track record of being a top tier team. In 2010 they made the College World Series and in 2011 they hosted a Regional. My freshman year we had a guys from the 2009 and 2010 teams and had some pretty good freshmen that came in and we all meshed really well together. We ended up going to Super Regionals at UCLA. Me and Preston Morrison were both freshmen and we started game one and two. We had studs; guys that got drafted and went to the Big Leagues. Sophomore year we were supposed to be even better, but sometimes things don’t pan out the way you want. For me, I didn’t even win a game. I had like a 3.02 ERA, but didn’t ever win. The games we pitched well, we didn’t hit and the games we hit, we just didn’t pitch well.

Pitcher Brandon Finnegan #29 of the Cincinnati Reds sits in the dugout during the game against the Chicago Cubs on March 5, 2016 in Mesa, Arizona. (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

Those seasons tend to happen sometimes in baseball. The next year you guys certainly put it all together again. What was that season like?

As soon as we finished the Big 12 Tournament in 2013, Coach Schloss got together the returners who he considered to be the captains of the team. It was Kevin Cron, Jerrick Suiter, Preston Morrison and myself. He laid into us a little bit and let us know he was never going to accept another year like that. We came back with a chip on our shoulder. Preston Morrison is going to go down as the best pitcher to ever pitch at TCU. The season he had was impeccable. His career ERA was [1.84]. In 2014, we did what was needed to be done and just enjoyed it.

Before we get into more of 2014, what was that like representing your country playing for Team USA in 2013? You had some huge games there too, especially in that five-game sweep of Cuba.

That was awesome. The team was stupid stacked. We had Alex Bregman, Trea Turner, Kyle Schwarber, Bradley Zimmer, Carlos Rodon, Matt Chapman. We were just unbelievable. We also had Tyler Beede, myself, Preston Morrison, Luke Weaver. Just stacked. It was fun to play with the top players in the country, especially having “USA” across your chest. When we went to Japan, I remember everyone woke up at like 2AM because our body clocks were so off. We would just hang out in the hallways and shoot the shit. It was a lot of fun. Japan was a culture shock, but it was awesome. On the bigger stages, I try to remember that it’s just the same game I have been playing since I was four years old. I got to pitch against Japan and Cuba and did really well both of those games. But that doesn’t happen without TCU, my parents and God putting me in that position to succeed. Going to TCU changed my life and career for sure.

Brandon Finnegan #29 of the Cincinnati Reds works in the first inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on June 30, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Matthew Hazlett/Getty Images)

Going into the 2014 draft, you were a top talent and I’m sure you had to know you’d be a first rounder. What was your mindset going into the draft? Did you have a good idea of which teams were serious about taking you?

I did really well my junior year and was hearing I could be a top five pick. I threw against Texas on Easter weekend and we really shoved it and carved them up that weekend. I think we gave up one run all series. I threw really well Friday, about 115 pitches in eight innings. The next week, my shoulder was a little sore. I got to the fourth inning of my Friday start and we were up 4-0. Usually my warmups were high 80s and then I’d let it fly on my last pitch. This time, they were like 78-80. My last pitch was usually 98 and this time it was 93. You start freaking out when that happens. I came out of the game in the fourth with shoulder inflammation. That was what happened to my dad too. I walked off the mound with my face in my glove. We did all the tests and nothing was structurally hurt. I got a cortisone shot and went back out two weeks later and was fine.

So you think that effected your draft status?

Yea, before that I was supposed to be a top five pick. The Cubs had pretty much told me they were taking me at four. But I came back stronger and threw really well. I had talked to all the teams. I didn’t talk to the Royals too much because they told me in their meetings that they didn’t see me making it to their spot at 17. Thank God that ended up happening, right? On draft day, I was sitting at my parents’ house. I didn’t really know what was going to happen because I went from a sure top 10 pick to, “Oh crap, am I gonna go in the first round?” My advisor at the time said we had a deal with the White Sox if I made it to the second round. I was like, “Screw that! I’m not a second round pick!’ All that ego came out. He told me I would be fine and to enjoy my party. I paced around the house the entire time. When it happened, I didn’t care who picked me, I was just glad it happened.

After you signed, you only got 27 innings in the minors before the Royals called you up to the majors to help down the stretch and in the postseason. Did you know you might be on a fast track to the majors?

The day I signed, they had me up in the owner’s suite. George Brett and Jason Kendall were there. Jeff Foxworthy was there too; he was Ned Yost’s next door neighbor. The front office guys had asked me if I thought I could compete in the big leagues, and I said, “Yea, of course I can!” I was 21 years old and arrogant. They said, “OK, this is our plan. We’re gonna send you to High A and if everything goes right there, we’ll move you to AA and if you’re throwing well and we’re in a playoff push, we’re gonna call you up.” I kind of chuckled and thought they were bullshitting me. George Brett and Jason Kendall were like, “We’re not joking. This is serious.” They said I didn’t have to do anything different, I just had to go out and pitch like I had been doing all year in college. Then everything fell into place. I was in the right place and right time.

Brandon Finnegan #29 of the Cincinnati Reds reacts as he tosses the rosin bag after giving up a triple to Ryan Braun #8 of the Milwaukee Brewers during the first inning at Miller Park on September 25, 2016 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)

They weren’t kidding! Not only did you get called up in September, you made your Major League debut at Yankee Stadium and struck out Jacoby Ellsbury and Derek Jeter in your first inning! That had to be wild.

When I got called up, we were actually playing Texas in Kansas City. I thought it was going to be cool that I was going to make my debut against my hometown team, but I never got in. We went to New York and Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson took me and the other rookies out to a bar and welcomed us to the team. The next day it was like 6-1 in the fifth inning, and I was like, “Oh crap, I might get into one of these games!” When I got into the game, I just kind of blacked out. I can’t tell you who the first batter I ever faced was. I have zero clue. After that, I can name all of them. Luckily it went well. After that first batter, I faced Ellsbury, Jeter, Martin Prado, Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran. Somehow, I got them all out! It was a dream come true.

Everyone remembers the run to the World Series, but I think people outside of Kansas City forget how crazy that Wild Card Game with Oakland was. You played a big role in that. What are your memories of that game?

Things weren’t looking good for us. We were down 7-3 in the 8th inning. It was my first time away from home for a long time and I had been thinking that if we lose, I get to go home. The A’s had Jon Lester on the mound and he was tough to beat. We started making a comeback and a call came down to the bullpen and they said if we tied it up, I was coming in for the ninth. I was like, “Ah shit, they’re gonna make me lose this game?!” I just tried to calm the jitters and went out to do what I did my whole life. Luckily it all worked out. I did well and we ended up winning.

In the ALDS you had two hitless outings and you also pitched against someone you said was your favorite player at one point, Josh Hamilton, getting him to hit into a double play. Could you take us back to that series?

Up until that time, there were only two other players who I noticed were at the plate; Derek Jeter and David Ortiz, who I also really liked a lot. I definitely had a little more jitters against Josh Hamilton than any other hitter I faced. You don’t realize how big this dude was until you’re standing next to him. I faced him back-to-back nights. I knew if I made the wrong pitch, that ball wasn’t coming back. The Angels fans were nuts. They were a lot louder than I expected. Luckily, the first night he fouled out to first base and the next night he grounded into a double play. It was intense. The home and away locker rooms are right next to each other and the family area is right between them. After we won the series, we got done poppin’ bottles and I went to meet my family there. Josh came and found me and was towering over me, looking straight down. He shook my hand and his hand covered half my forearm. He congratulated me and said everything I was doing was super cool. It was a dream come true.

Brandon Finnegan #31 of the Cincinnati Reds pitches during a baseball game against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on September 28, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Nationals won 5-3. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Washington Nationals/Getty Images)

Then onto the World Series. When you came on to pitch in Game 3, you became the first person to pitch in the College World Series and Major League World Series in the same season. It’s really incredible. Were you aware ahead of time that nobody had done that before?

It was different doing it in San Francisco than if I did it in Kansas City. The bullpens were on the field and you’re right there warming up, so the fans were throwing out everything in the book at me. That’ll get the juices flowing. It was fun and that Giants team was legit. At the time though, I had no clue that somebody had never done that before. After the game I got interviewed about it and that’s how I found out. But getting into a situation like that and getting the job done the first night was a dream come true. That’s everybody’s dream. Whether you want to go to the NBA, NFL or Major League Baseball, you want the chance to play for a championship. I got super lucky to be on a great team with a great group of guys.

The Giants ended up on top in 2014, but the Royals came back and won it in 2015. You were traded at the deadline though and went over to the Reds for Johnny Cueto. Did that trade catch you by surprise?

Definitely a big surprise. Going into that season, I didn’t have a set role. They didn’t know if I would start or pitch in relief, but I made it easy on them and had a terrible spring training. They sent me down and I made a couple of starts, but got called up. They had an older group of pitchers, so I was back and forth a lot because guys kept getting hurt. The last time I got sent down, I woke up to texts from Hosmer and Dyson asking me if I got traded. I was like, “What the hell? No?” I texted my agent and he hadn’t heard anything yet.  I walked into our manager Brian Poldberg’s office and he was really cool about the situation. They weren’t allowed to say anything, but I told him I had been getting these texts about being traded. He said that as soon as he knew something he would let me know, but that I wasn’t allowed to go outside.

They came in and told me and John Lamb that we had been traded. I packed all my shit up and went back to the hotel and packed up there too. I was 22 years old at the time and so upset. I had just gotten drafted in the first round and was like, “What the hell!” You don’t understand the business side of things until you go through it. I was super butthurt back then. I wish to this day that I never got traded. It was such a good group of guys and I think I’d still be in the Big Leagues to this day if I hadn’t gotten traded. But the Reds told me their plans for me. When I got there, Barry Larkin and Eric Davis talked to me and settled me in. To this day, I could text Barry Larkin and he’d answer me. Those are amazing dudes. They made the transition easy.

The Royals went on to win the World Series in 2015, which had to be a weird feeling for you. I am sure you were happy for your friends, but there had to be some regret there I imagine. Was that bittersweet to watch?

At the time, I was so upset. I kept thinking that if I wasn’t traded, I knew for a fact that I would have been there. I had all those thoughts that I should be popping champagne with them. But they needed a starter because some guys were hurt and they went and got it. I was also so happy for the guys I was so close with. Guys like Hosmer, Salvador Perez, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon. I could go down the list of that entire team because they were such good guys and great players. Those guys made me feel like family and that’s what hurt the most. Not being able to be there with them. Luckily, I did get a ring out of it! We’re actually having the ten year reunion for the 2014 team and we’re getting recognized at one of the games in May, so I am really pumped for that.

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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