Finley an old hand at handling heat

Baseball

October 12, 2002|By LAURA VECSEY

SAN FRANCISCO - The way this season started for Chuck Finley, it's difficult to imagine that his assignment today is the toughest thing he has had to face.

Pressure? There's no denying that down 0-2 against the San Francisco Giants, with the series set to resume in Barry Bonds' personal playpen, that the Cardinals are in a world of hurt.

But isn't this exactly why St. Louis worked so hard to win the bidding war for Finley when a bevy of playoff-hopeful teams sought his split-finger services?

This July, the Reds and the Giants were all in pursuit, but with the death of Cardinals starter Darryl Kile, St. Louis had been dealt a huge blow. By midseason, it was clear that if the Cards were going to go anywhere - in the regular season or beyond - they were going to need a guy like Finley.

So here he is, Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, exactly where the Cardinals need a 39-year-veteran starter. He either breathes life into the Cardinals' "Team of Destiny" quest for a World Series or, should he falter, plummets them into the oblivion of a deep, deep hole.

"I am taking [today] like it's my last start, like I do most every start," Finley said yesterday.

"It might be the last time I grab the ball for this year or whenever. So I'm treating this that way, and I'm going to go out there with the focus and intensity to try and take this thing down the road a little further."

The Cardinals would love to see him in action not only tonight, but in the future. Finley would be the Game 7 starter - should this series get that far. Regardless, the Cardinals want to bring Finley back in 2003, but that's beyond Finley's scope.

"I haven't let my mind go any further than 1:20 [Pacific time] and whatever happens at 1:21 or 1:22 or 1:23 is still up in the air," he said.

What's weird about Finley's potential last start for 2002 is that it might actually be less pressure-filled than Finley's Opening Day.

His first start this season? Finley, who was with Cleveland at the time, never made it to the ballpark.

On an April Fools' Day that was the farthest thing from being a joke, Finley had to scratch himself from the lineup. It was an all-too-public incident in which he and his wife, Tawny Kitaen, got into an ugly drive-by argument. It ended with a third party calling the police near the car of the battling couple. Finley had allegedly been accosted by Tawny, whose arrest started a string of sad, tawdry headline news about these parents of two young daughters.

Accusations about drug abuse on both sides soon flew. A week later, Finley filed divorce papers and a request for custody of his daughters, and somehow, as Tawny countersued - filing documents accusing him of steroid and marijuana use - Finley trudged his way through the machinations of his 16th season in the big leagues.

Now the big lefty says he is up for the monumental task at hand. He and the Giants did not square off this season, but Finley has already made up his mind about how he'll approach Bonds or Jeff Kent. He'll deal with them head on, he said, since guys like shortstop Rich Aurilia (two homers in the Giants' 4-1 Game 2 win) or catcher Benito Santiago can still make him pay.

"If your mind-set is already the fact that you are pitching around these guys, then you are working backwards," Finley said.

By winning both games at Busch Stadium, stunning the loyal Cardinals fan base, the Giants' return to Pacific Bell Park is going to be full-throttle bedlam. They haven't been back here since they left for Atlanta, where they knocked off the Braves in Game 5 to advance to this LCS.

Giants leadoff man Kenny Lofton is a former Cleveland teammate of Finley's. Lofton said the cacophonous atmosphere will be hard to ignore, even for a veteran.

"Yeah, he was my teammate, but it's not going to do me much good now. I'm going to enjoy this. We'll be looking for his splitter, but you better ask him if he's up for this. It's going to be crazy," Lofton said.

But if Finley proved anything this season, it's that he can focus through all sorts of diversion. Though he went 4-11 the first half of the season with Cleveland, National League scouts saw that Finley's velocity was good, his splitter still dangerous. He rewarded the Cards for their deal by going 7-4 after the July 19 trade, dropping his ERA from 4.44 to 3.80 along the way.

"When he showed up, we really needed him. He pitched really well for us from that first day," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said.

Finley was also a key reason the Cards swept the favored Arizona Diamondbacks. Against World Series co-MVP Curt Schilling in Game 2 of the Division Series, Finley pitched six shutout innings in the Cards' 2-1 victory, allowing them to go back to Busch Stadium with a 2-0 lead and so much emotional momentum.

Now, the Cardinals are in the 180-degree opposite position. Scott Rolen, the other trade-deadline acquisition whose stellar play at third base and at the plate solidified the Cardinals' October offense, won't play in a Game 3 that is absolutely critical.

"It's important to ... let them know we came to play and that we're not going away," Finley said. "It's a very big game for us."

But he is ready for this start, regardless of whether it's his last.

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