TCU's confidence is at an all-time high. And having Brandon Finnegan, the 17th overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft, on the mound doesn't hurt either.
TCU infielder Keaton Jones (26) is congratulated by teammates after scoring a run in the fourth inning against Pepperdine in Fort Worth, Saturday, June 7, 2014.
Matt Strasen / Associated Press
By David Ubben
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Brandon Finnegan makes something of a habit of not eyeing balls hit to the outfield.
On at least one occasion during Saturday's 3-2 win, he left the mound in celebration before the umpire had officially signaled for an inning-ending strikeout.
He was halfway to the dugout by the time another inning-ending groundout reached first baseman Kevin Cron's glove.
Such is the luxury of confidence. Finnegan exudes it before, after and while the ball leaves his hand.
"Mr. Finnegan is on his way," one TCU staffer announced before the postgame press conference began. "He's right around the corner."
TCU manager Jim Schlossnagle deadpanned a response: "You gotta call him 'Mr.' now that he's a first-round pick?"
Thursday, the Kansas City Royals made Finnegan the 17th overall pick in the MLB Draft.
Saturday's three-hit outing was the 15th start of his season, and he's given up more than two runs in just two of those starts.
Not a bad week.
For 6.1 innings on Saturday, he confounded Pepperdine batters, striking out seven and giving up just two hits until Chris Forniaci's two-run homer in the top of the seventh inning provided the third. That sent Finnegan to the dugout amid a standing ovation from the 5,094 at Lupton Stadium, the biggest crowd in the stadium's postseason history.
"I was kind of relaxed, I didn't feel pressure at all. All I have to do is throw strikes," Finnegan said.
He threw plenty on Saturday. Sixty-three of his 96 pitches were strikes.
He didn't look distressed after being pulled. It's easy to feel assured when you hand the ball to a bullpen that hadn't given up a run in 23.2 innings. That streak grew to 26.1 innings on Saturday after Trey Teakell replaced Finnegan.
"He pitched down in the zone all day," Pepperdine manager Steve Rodriguez said. "He did a heck of a job and that's why he's a first-round pick."
Sophomore reliever Riley Ferrell struck out four of the five batters he faced after taking over with one out and runners on second and third in the eighth inning. He also struck out the side in the ninth inning to seal the win and put the Frogs a win away from their second trip to the College World Series and first since 2010.
"I was kind of in a zone," Ferrell said. "It was pretty cool."
When it was over, he flexed gorilla style toward home plate an unleashed a Ric Flair-esque "Woo!" which may be the only appropriate celebration for saving fingernails across Fort Worth from being bitten.
"Ferrell came in and did a hell of a job," Pepperdine manager Steve Rodriguez said.
The Frogs finished second in the Big 12 and won the league tourney despite scoring the sixth-most runs out of nine teams this season.
TCU's pitching staff gives them room for error, a margin that was needed after early-game miscues.
Sunday's starter, Preston Morrison, was already named the Big 12's Pitcher of the Year.
The Frogs left 10 runners on base through seven innings and in the second inning, twice had runners thrown out at third base.
"I thought those were exactly the right plays," Schlossnagle said.
The Frogs loaded the bases with one out in the third inning but an infield fly from Kevin Cron, the team's leader with 17 doubles, preceded a flyout from second baseman Garrett Crain to end the inning and keep the game knotted in a scoreless tie.
Those miscues might KO teams with lesser pitching staffs. It didn't TCU, and Finnegan, Schlossnagle and Co. were anything but surprised.
They won't be surprised if Morrison mows down plenty of Pepperdine batters on Sunday to send the Frogs to the College World Series.
"Brandon's been an ace for us for a couple years, as has Preston," Schlossnagle said. "We're confident in all of our pitchers."
That's quite a luxury in college baseball this time of year.