GAINESVILLE, Fla. — He was relatively unknown a week ago outside of Gators’ most informed baseball fans. But late Sunday night, the scattered fans holding out at the hot and humid Condron Ballpark chanted his name as they waited to see if he would re-emerge from the dugout for the end of the ninth inning.
Karsten, Karsten, Karsten.
The moment didn’t escape the UF head coach Kevin O’Sullivanalthough his team is three outs from two wins in one day to keep his season alive.
“You get goosebumps when something like that happens,” O’Sullivan said.
Once an eye-catcher MacGuscette finished putting on his protective gear, freshman left-handed Carsten Finnvold emerged from the shelter and ran towards the hill.
A burst of applause echoed around the stadium.
“I’ve definitely never experienced anything like this in my life,” said Finnvold. “It was pretty hard to hold back that smile in the ninth inning when I ran out. It was one of the best moments of my entire life.”
Finnvold then finished what he hadn’t started, Florida’s 7-2 win over Oklahoma in the Gators’ second elimination game of the day at the Gainesville Regional. Finnvold has withdrawn Sooners midfielder Tanner Tredaway on a liner that is too short. After dropping a single to catcher Jimmy Crooks, he capped off one of the most unlikely pitching feats in program history by relegating Wallace Clark to third place in a game-ending double-play grounder. The Gators meet the Sooners again on Monday afternoon in a regional championship game.
Once the throw from UF second baseman Sterling Thompson hit the first baseman BT Riopelles Glove, Finnvold clenched his fist and slammed his gauntlet to the ground in front of the hill. After Finnvold’s nine-inning, 116-pitch relief effort, the Gators rushed to congratulate him.
At this point, O’Sullivan wasn’t the only one with goosebumps. He had plenty of company among the spectators who gave Finnvold a standing ovation. During his 15 seasons with Florida’s head coach, O’Sullivan has seen a lot, but he’s never had a relief come in without someone up front and finish the game.
“I was just hoping he would limit the damage,” O’Sullivan said. “I haven’t really had a chance to digest it all. Any adjective I use to describe his outing doesn’t do him justice.”
Rarely used in his first season in Florida, Finnvold is now known for delivering one of the most memorable pitching performances in Gators’ postseason history. Finnvold, a former American Heritage High standout from Boca Raton, replaced the starter Timmy Manning at the end of the first inning.
With the Gators playing their fourth game in three days and their second on Sunday, O’Sullivan didn’t have many options. Manning faced three Sooners, hitting one and passing two to load the bases with no one outside. He reached out to Finnvold, who had not pitched since March 26 before the start of the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game a week earlier.
Finnvold put up a solid thrashing of the Vols in the 8-5 loss in Florida but hadn’t served since that game. He pulled three Oklahoma hitters back on popups to end the first inning and provided a much-needed boost early in the game.
Finnvold isn’t overwhelming like most Florida pitchers. He relies on a fastball that hits about 85 mph and mixes in a change and a curveball to throw the batsmen off balance. He was excellent against the Sooners, allowing five hits and two runs over nine innings. He missed a batter and knocked out four.
“I knew that I really had to make a start and not a quick relief,” he said. “It really occurred to me that I might end the game around the sixth inning.”
Finnvold retired the first 16 batters he faced and didn’t give up a hit until Oklahoma singled out shortstop Peyton Graham with one atop the sixth. Graham’s single was the first of four straight for the Sooners, who had two runs home to level the game 2-2.
The Gators regained the lead in the seventh on an RBI single from Riopelle and after Jew Fabians second home run of the game extended the lead to 4-2, on the eighth the Gators broke the game up with three more runs before the inning was over.
Finnvold did the rest by retiring nine of the last ten batters he faced. Seventeen of the 27 outs Finnvold recorded were in the air.
“He certainly deserves any award he gets for that performance,” said O’Sullivan. “If you work and stay the course, opportunities like this can arise.”
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Finnvold spent most of the season working on his craft alone. He went two months without appearing in a game. He did not travel with the Gators for most of the regular season after struggling in four relief games earlier in the season.
His big break came when O’Sullivan informed Finnvold that he was traveling to the SEC tournament. The Gators made a surprise run to the championship game, and with limited pitching, O’Sullivan turned to Finnvold for a 1-ranked challenge against Tennessee in the championship game.
He threw 4 2/3 innings, gave up four hits, four runs (none earned), walked three and batted six.
“When I got the opportunity to pitch, I knew I had to make the most of it,” Finnvold said. “It’s pretty disheartening to watch a team play and you’re not there to help them. I’ve grown up a lot in the last three months.”
He relied on his father, former Florida State and big league pitcher Gar Finnvold, for encouragement and direction during his time on the bench. Finnvold continued to invest when an opportunity arose, such as on Sunday evening.
Others took notice.
“The way he’s been working all year to prepare for moments like this – you have to say that – because that’s what helped him,” said Fabian. “Not too many guys in college baseball throw fastballs at 85 miles an hour.
“He threw the game of his life.”
A relief pitcher going nine innings is rare in modern baseball.
According to Baseball-Reference.com research using the Stathead search engine, in 1988 the Yankees’ Neil Allen was the last major league pitcher to attend a game and pitch at least nine innings with relief. After one hit, he detached a young Al leader and threw nine shutout innings against an Oakland lineup featuring Rickey Henderson, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire.
In an interesting coincidence, Mark McGwire’s son Max McGwire met Finnvold on Sunday night. The game never fails to deliver surprises.
“It’s postseason baseball. Strange things are happening,” O’Sullivan said. “Things you can’t explain.”
They may be inexplicable, but they stay alive long after the moment. If you’ve been to Condron Ballpark on the first Sunday night in June, you won’t forget Finnvold’s outing.
Oklahoma coach Skip Johnson summed it up perfectly.
“This time of year is made for a hero,” Johnson said. “I hate to say it was fun to watch. He was incredible.”