PENSACOLA, Fla., - Cincinnati Reds pitcher Brandon Finnegan set the tone for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos pitching staff, throwing three scoreless innings in his first Major League rehabilitation assignment with the Double-A club.
For the game, three Pensacola pitchers combined to allow one run on three hits in a, 3-1, victory over the Mississippi Braves in front of 4,343 at Blue Wahoos Stadium. Pensacola leads the series, 2-1.
But the 24-year-old Finnegan's best performance came before his first pitch when he autographed the jerseys of two youth baseball players, who stood by his side on the mound during the national anthem.
"The kids are what's it for," said the left-hander. "I was a kid once and I always wanted autographs."
He made his autographs even more special by fighting the humidity to complete three scoreless innings, allowing a double to 19-year-old center fielder Ronald Acuna, giving up one walk and earning one K. He threw 35 pitches, 23 for strikes.
Finnegan is doing his rehab for a strained left trapezius, which he sustained April 15. Before his injury, Finnegan, a first round pick in 2014, was 1-0 with a 2.70 ERA and had 14 strikeouts in 10 innings.
"I definitely feel close (to returning to Cincinnati)," he said. "I was hoping they would let me go out for another one. I'll go four innings next time, hopefully."
His next start will come in the third game in the Blue Wahoo's last five game series before the All-Star break. Pensacola is on the road against the Miami Marlins Double-A affiliate the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp.
After coming from the Reds training camp in Goodyear in the Arizona desert, Finnegan said he did have to fight the humidity in the Florida coastal town.
"I haven't pitched in this kind of humidity for a long time," Finnegan said. "It affected my off-speed a lot. I couldn't get a grip and throw it."
Pensacola manager Pat Kelly, who was ejected for the second time this season, said Finnegan got stronger as the game progressed. Finnegan admitted he was anxious about the start.
"He got better every inning," Kelly said. "That first inning he felt his way through. He was more confident in the second and third. In the third inning, the ball came out really nice."
Finnegan's battery mate, Adrian Nieto, who played 48 games with the Chicago White Sox in 2014, not only caught the game but figured in two of the Blue Wahoos' three runs.
Nieto, a switch hitter who got some rare at bats from the right side, singled to right field to drive in second baseman Alex Blandino in the fourth inning to put Pensacola back on top, 2-1. Blandino had doubled and now leads the Southern League with 19.
Nieto tripled to lead off the seventh inning when he smashed a grounder into the right field corner. It was the sixth triple of his career. The 27-year-old catcher crossed the plate when left fielder Tyler Goeddel hit a two out single to right field to give the Blue Wahoos a, 3-1, cushion over Mississippi.
Both Finnegan and series-opener starter Homer Bailey, who is also doing MLB rehab for elbow surgery to remove bone spurs, got the message that the Blue Wahoos are in a tight playoff race. They improved to 36-27 and are now up four games with seven to go in the Southern League South Division.
"We are all aware of what's at stake," Nieto said. "(Pitching coach) Danny (Darwin) said, 'Hey, don't mess us up. We're in a playoff race."
Mississippi scored in the fourth when Braves third baseman Travis Demeritte scored on a ground ball by left fielder Jared James to tie the game, 1-1.
Demeritte was caught sleeping at second base by Nieto, the catcher. Demeritte took off for third and it looked like the throw from shortstop Blake Trahan to third baseman Josh VanMeter got him out but he was called safe. Pensacola manager Pat Kelly jogged out onto the field to argue the call vigorously and ended up getting ejected.
Pensacola had taken the lead, 1-0, when VanMeter walked with two outs and then the next batter, center fielder Gabriel Guerrero, crushed a double into the left-center gap, allowing VanMeter to score from first base.
Mississippi Braves starter Kolby Allard, who Baseball America rates as the No. 3 prospect in the Atlanta Braves organization, won his first four starts but has two losses and two no decisions in his last four starts.
The 19-year-old Allard, the 14th pick overall in the 2015 draft by the Braves, pitched six innings, allowing two runs on four hits and three walks and struck out one. He got the loss and is now 4-4 with a 2.88 ERA.
The Pensacola Blue Wahoos host the fourth game of the five-game series against the Atlanta Braves Double-A affiliate the Mississippi Braves at 6:35 p.m. Monday. The M-Braves starter is LHP Max Fried (2-8, 5.49) against the Blue Wahoos RHP Deck McGuire (5-4, 3.80).
The games are broadcast live on the Blue Wahoos flagship station 97.1 The Ticket. Listen for free at bluewahoos.com and by using the TuneIn Radio app on your mobile, desktop or home devices.
You can watch the home games delayed on Cox Sports Television Monday through Thursday on Channel 319. Friday, Saturday and Sunday games are broadcast live on BLAB-TV.
BIG FISH Catcher Adrian Nieto was 2-3 with a triple, a run scored and one RBI...Left fielder Tyler Goeddel was 2-3 and drove in a run...Second baseman Alex Blandino got his 19th double of the season, which leads the Southern League...Third baseman Josh VanMeter was 1-3 with a walk and scored a run...Gabriel Guerrero was 1-4 and doubled in a run.
Tickets to the 2017 Southern League All-Star Game are on sale now! Purchase tickets online at bluewahoos.com or visiting the Box Office. Orders can also be placed over the phone by calling 850-934-8444. The Pensacola Blue Wahoos are the Double-A Affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds and a member of the Southern League. Follow the Pensacola Blue Wahoos at BlueWahoos.com, facebook.com/PensacolaBlueWahoos and twitter.com/BlueWahoosBBall.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.