RONALD BLUM, AP Sports Writer
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Betty Finnegan made the 5 1/2-hour drive from Fort Worth, Texas, with a friend Aug. 31 to watch the last two games of the season for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. Her 21-year-old son was finishing his first summer as a professional baseball player on the Double-A team after helping pitch TCU into the College World Series.
They had checked into a Holiday Inn and left for the ballpark when her cellphone rang, and she saw Brandon Finnegan’s number flash.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, something’s wrong.’ The first thing in my mind is did he get hurt?” she recalled last week.
Nothing of the sort.
Instead, the Kansas City Royals minor leaguer said: “You know the hotel you just paid for? You’re not going to need it.”
“I just got promoted to the major leagues,” he told her. “And we have to be there by midnight tonight.”
Sitting in a car with her friend and Brandon’s girlfriend, Betty started screaming.
“We were laughing and crying, all at the same time,” she said.
They quickly packed up his stuff and made the 3 1/2-hour drive to Kansas City, Betty in her gray Chevy Equinox and Brandon in his black Cadillac Escalade, which had been delivered just the night before.
And the ride has kept on going.
Betty Finnegan had been prepared for the trip to Omaha, Nebraska, and the College World Series last June. She never expected her son could become the first player to appear in the CWS and the big league World Series in the same season.
“I got really lucky,” Brandon Finnegan explained. “I mean, that’s about all I can say.”
Talk about long seasons: After going 0-8 for the Horned Frogs as a sophomore in 2013, he started preseason bullpen sessions just before Christmas and began his 2014 season by striking out 13 over seven shutout innings against Jacksonville in TCU’s Valentine’s Day opener — more than eight months ago.
In the CWS, he gave up a double on his first pitch. He trailed after two pitches and wound up going eight innings in a 15-inning, 3-2 loss to Virginia.
TCU teammate Preston Morrison, the Big 12 Pitcher of the Year, said they pushed each other over their three seasons together. Pitching coach Kirk Saarloos, a former big leaguer, developed a system where his staff would compete for Frog Points, earned for first-pitch strikes, quick innings and fielding prowess.
“He’d be super upset if I got one more Frog than him and I’d get super upset if he was one Frog above me. It was probably about 50-50 on who won,” Morrison said.
Kansas City took Finnegan with the 17th pick of the June draft — unusual, given that he’s just 5-foot-11 and not the prototypical 6-foot-4 pitcher many teams seek.
The left-hander signed for a bonus of $2,200,600 and made his pro debut in Delaware on July 10 for Class A Wilmington. He went 0-1 with an 0.60 ERA in five starts and on Aug. 1 moved up to Double-A, where he was shifted to the bullpen and went 0-3 with a 2.25 ERA in eight relief appearances.
While the organization envisions him as a starter long-term, he quickly became its best short-term option for late lefty heat.
Chad Lee, the Kansas City scout who tracked Finnegan the past two years, thought back to a conversation they had last October. Lee asked whether Finnegan saw himself someday as a starter or reliever in the majors.
“He goes, ‘I think I can get hitters out right now in the big leagues,'” Lee recalled.
Finnegan made his big league debut at Yankee Stadium in early September, a nationally televised game before a crowd of 45,262 on a steamy Saturday afternoon. He was the first player from this year’s draft to reach the majors.
With the Royals trailing 6-1, Finnegan took the mound wearing the No. 29 pendant with a TCU marking, even though the Royals assigned him 27. He worked exclusively from the set position when he entered in the bottom of the sixth and John Ryan Murphy flied out.
Jacoby Ellsbury got fooled on a changeup, a pitch Finnegan developed in the last year, and was left with just one hand on the bat as he flailed at strike three. And then Derek Jeter — Finnegan was 2 years old when the Yankees star made his big league debut — struck out when he swung over a 94 mph sinking fastball.
“It was such a whirlwind for him. I don’t think he knew where he was at the time,” TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “He said, ‘Coach, I didn’t even realize it was Jeter. As soon as I toed the rubber and looked up to get the sign, it’s like, Holy cow! It’s Derek Jeter!'”
Finnegan allowed one run in seven regular-appearances with the Royals and two more in four postseason outings, getting the win in Game 2 of the AL Division Series sweep of the Angels.
Finnegan played first base and outfield at Southwest High School in Fort Worth and also pitched once a week. He still speaks frequently with coach Frankie Gasca.
“I’ll tell you what, he definitely likes his shoes — sneakers,” Gasca said. “It seems like he’s got one that will match for whatever outfit he’s got on.”
Finnegan was drafted by his hometown Texas Rangers with the 1,374th pick in the 45th round in 2011. But he decided to accept a scholarship from TCU — as a freshman, he once hit six batters in a game.
Finnegan’s father, Gary, pitched at TCU in 1979.
“I hurt my arm, and that was the end of it,” Gary said. “Shoulder. Back then they didn’t do the surgeries like they do now.”