Jim Schlossnagle immediately became sick to his stomach.
Gary Finnegan's thoughts began to race. From the stands, it looked like the problem was in the shoulder. Then again, it could've been the elbow -- perhaps, he hoped, it was just a cramp. Finnegan knew nothing but what he saw, felt nothing but fear as he watched his son Brandon walk off the mound that day wondering if he'd need surgery -- desperately hoping that his dreams of playing professional baseball weren't coming to a close before they ever even began.
It was the third inning of an April 25 matchup with Cal State Northridge that Friday afternoon when Brandon Finnegan, the usual Friday starting pitcher for Texas Christian, exited the game in the third inning with discomfort in his left throwing shoulder. Never had he even been sore before, head coach Schlossnagle recalled. Not once had the junior needed to make a visit to the training room.
"He thought the world was coming to an end," Schlossnagle said. "You just try and control his emotions, because he's never been through anything like that."
But Finnegan's fear was warranted. After being drafted by the Texas Rangers in the 45th round of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, Finnegan has declared for the Draft again after three years of development at TCU. This time it's for real. This time he's ready, and this time he's projected to be a first-round pick, ranked No. 11 among the Top 100 Draft prospects. A shoulder injury would have hindered everything, he thought.
But when the news was released that what he thought was something serious was in fact just a one-time stiffness in his shoulder, and that'd he'd be ready to go in a matter of days, everything fell back into place.
"Doc said it's no big deal," Gary Finnegan said. "And he's been great ever since -- no problem."* * *
Baseball has always -- will always -- be the obvious choice for Brandon Finnegan. His father also played for TCU, and his older brother Jonathan competed at Western Texas and then Arkansas Tech, where he received All-America honors as a first baseman.
"That's what we do in our family," Finnegan said. "We're big-time baseball guys. My dad got me into baseball when I was 4 years old, and I've been playing ever since."
When Brandon was just 10 years old swinging the bat in the backyard, his father knew that one day he'd play collegiate ball if he wanted to.
"Rafael Palmeiro, his swing is so pure. I've always liked it," Gary said. "And I think Brandon has the prettiest swing for a left-hander besides Rafael. I always thought he could hit, but then the pitching really started to come on when he was 13 or 14 years old, and you could really start to see it change. That's when it all really started, but I've been a proud papa the whole time."
When Finnegan arrived for his freshman year at TCU, his role wasn't quite yet defined. Schlossnagle flirted with the idea of having him come out of the bullpen as a reliever, and by the end of the season he had made 11 starts with a 4-5 record and a 3.47 ERA in the 23 games in which he appeared.
His sophomore year, he started 15 of the 16 games he appeared in, and finished the season with an 0-8 record and a 3.18 ERA. The numbers were underwhelming, but Schlossnagle -- the 2013 USA National Team manager -- wasn't surprised when Finnegan was offered a spot on Team USA's roster anyway for summer 2013.
"He earned his way on by how he pitched during the season," he said. "We all knew that he was much better than an 0-8 pitcher for his performances, and his stuff, and reports from scouts and everything else."
Ever since then, when he traveled and competed with the nation's best collegiate baseball players, Finnegan has morphed into a new, better pitcher in every way.
"I had a great summer ... I was [throwing] 95-98 [mph] and not being a tall guy, and left-handed, that kind of helps me out a lot," Finnegan said. "But really just commanding my fastball and slider is all I needed to do, and once I started doing that, scouts just fell in love, I guess."* * *
With Team USA, Finnegan was 3-1 with a 1.14 ERA in four starts and six appearances. His father's favorite memory was watching him pitch against Cuba, when he threw seven scoreless innings, with just three hits and seven strikeouts.
But for Schlossnagle, the most vivid memory came on a perfect summer night right after the squad got back from Japan.
"We're standing out in Wrigley Field and Brandon had been trying to make some adjustments with his breaking ball and I'm not left-handed ... and neither was our pitching coach from Ole Miss," Schlossnagle said. "I said, 'Shoot, go over and ask that guy. He's supposed to have the best one.'''
That guy was Carlos Rodon, a lefty from N.C. State, the nation's best collegiate pitcher, and Finnegan's roommate for the summer.
"As soon as he showed up from the World Series, I asked him how he gripped it, and he showed me, and it kind of just sank in with me," Finnegan said. "Ever since then, I just started throwing it."
Now it's made all the difference. A junior at TCU with an 8-3 record and a 2.14 ERA, Finnegan has registered 110 strikeouts in 84 innings heading into Friday's matchup with Siena to open the NCAA Tournament.
For the first time in TCU's history, the Horned Frogs will enter the tournament as a national seed, claiming the No. 7 spot.
"I don't think Carlos told him anything different than we had been telling him," Schlossnagle said. "But it's like your parents -- your mom and dad tell you one thing for so long and then Johnny down the street says the same thing and a light goes on. Whatever it takes."* * *
When Finnegan pulls the No. 29 jersey over his head and takes the mound Friday against Siena, he knows what's on the line.
He knows his time in college is winding down, and he knows that in a matter of weeks his life is about to change dramatically. Though he said he would love to be drafted by his hometown Rangers again, part of him hopes he'll be off the board by the time they pick.
"Honestly I can't imagine what it'll be like to hear my name called," he said. "I heard it called when I was a senior in high school but it was late in the Draft. First round -- it's going to be a special day."
But for now, his focus is on one thing. From the day he stepped foot on TCU's campus, his goal has been to win a championship.
He's already been a part of TCU's first Big 12 title this season. He's already been a part of the Horned Frogs' first national seed in the NCAA Tournament. Now he's feeling 100 percent healthy again, and there's just one thing left to do.
"I got drafted out of high school, decided to come here, and now I'm trying to move on to my dreams," he said. "I want to win a national championship before I leave here."
A soft smile splits his face and he lets out a gentle laugh as he really puts the June 5-7 First-Year Player Draft into perspective.
"Yeah, I was drafted by the Rangers in 2011 and it was an awesome experience, but now I've got a chance to go high in the first round and I think that's pretty sweet," he said. "It's an awesome feeling, of course, but I'm ready for it all to be over -- that way I can get back to just baseball. And that's it."
Grace Raynor is an associate reporter for MLB.com.