KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — One by one, the camera panned over the faces of the Kansas City Royals, who had lined up along the first-base line for introductions before Game 3 of their AL Division Series.
When it settled on Brandon Finnegan, the crowd roared just a little bit louder.
On one hand,a it made perfect sense. Finnegan has been downright stellar in the playoffs, pitching four sharp innings and earning a win. He’s provided the power left-handed arm out of the bullpen that the Royals knew they would need if they were to make a deep run.
On the other hand, it made little sense at all. This is a guy that few fans knew anything about six weeks ago, and virtually nobody knew anything about six months ago.
“It’s definitely a shock to me,” said Finnegan, who began the year leading TCU to the College World Series and could end it by leading the Royals to a very different World Series.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” Finnegan said, “but it’s been a blessing and a lot of fun.”
The 21-year-old first-round pick could be a poster child for rousing rookies taking the baseball playoffs by storm this year. On the Royals alone, he’s joined by young flamethrower Yordano Ventura, infielder Christian Colon and speedy utility man Terrance Gore.
With the exception of Ventura, none of them played much in the regular season.
Giants reliever Hunter Strickland, who skipped Triple-A on his way to the big leagues, and struck out Washington’s Ian Desmond on a 100 mph fastball with the bases loaded to end the sixth inning Friday. While he gave up two solo homers in the seventh, the Giants still hung on for a 3-2 victory in their NL Division Series opener.
Strickland’s 23-year-old teammate, Joe Panik, had five hits in his first 10 playoff at-bats. He made his major league debut in May and batted .305 in 73 games.
In the other National League series, St. Louis outfielder Randal Grichuk homered off the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw in his first postseason plate appearance on Friday. His 22-year-old teammate Marco Gonzales earned the win when the Cardinals held on, 10-9, in Game 1.
“When it comes down to it, it is the same game,” Panik said. “You have to be more fine with the little things. When the pressure gets on you, tell yourself to stay within yourself.”
He did that sublimely in Game 2 on Saturday night.
San Francisco was trailing 1-0 with two outs in the ninth inning, and Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann had retired 20 batters in a row. Panik came to the plate representing either the tying run or final out, and he worked a walk to extend the game.
He later scored to force extra innings, and the Giants ultimately won 2-1 in 18.
“It’s fun to watch a guy who’s confident in himself,” said Giants catcher Buster Posey, no stranger to doing big things at a young age. “He understands what type of player he is. It looks to me like he’s got one of those swings that’s just extremely consistent. You’re going to see a lot of line drives and base hits. He’s been huge for us.”
So many young players have been huge in so many situations over the years.
Relief pitcher Trevor Rosenthal helped the Cardinals to the postseason as a wide-eyed rookie two years ago, and was dynamic in helping them to the World Series last season.
Another reliever, Francisco Rodriguez, had never won a major league game before winning five of them in the 2002 playoffs, helping the Angels win the championship.
Tigers ace David Price made his big league debut on Sept. 14, 2008, as a reliever for Tampa Bay. He would later be the winning pitcher in Game 2 of the AL Championship Series, and then pitched 3 1-3 innings of relief against Philadelphia in the World Series.
On that same Rays team was current Royals ace James Shields, who happens to see a little bit of similarity between Price and Finnegan in their late-season successes.
“Finnegan has done a phenomenal job,” Shields said. “Just the composure he has on the mound and the fire he has out there, and it definitely reminds me a lot of David Price when he came up. David always had that competitive attitude and never wanted to lose.”
Turns out that is an attitude shared by a lot of rousing rookies.
“It’s tough enough to make your big league debut,” Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer explained, “but to be fresh for a month — a month fresh in the big leagues — and come into a playoff situation, a do-or-die situation like that, it shows a lot.”