WINSTON-SALEM, N.C.—During his junior year at Florida, Dane Dunning found himself stuck behind a first-rounder (A.J. Puk), a second-rounder (Logan Shore) and a possible first-rounder this year (Alex Faedo).
But even though he made just five starts, the scouts who showed up at Gainesville every weekend identified Dunning as someone whose talent belonged with his rotation-mates. The Nationals pounced on Dunning at No. 29 and immediately stuck him back in the rotation.
He made eight starts between the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League and short-season Auburn—34.2 innings in all—but made enough of an impression on the White Sox for them to ask for him along with righthanders Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez as the third piece of their trade to send outfielder Adam Eaton to Washington.
Now firmly back in the starter’s role, Dunning has one goal this year: Attack.
“I was just commanding my pitches, working both sides of the plate and trying to attack hitters,” Dunning said, referencing his 2-0, 0.35 start this year at low Class A Kannapolis before earning an early-season bump to high Class A Winston-Salem.
In his first few starts as his manager, Willie Harris has also noticed that aggressive mindset from Dunning.
“He attacks,” Harris said. “He’s got the mindset of, he’s going to challenge hitters and he’s going to make you swing the bat, and he’s got a good arm. He’s not afraid of contact.”
In high school, Dunning was a four-pitch pitcher with a traditional mix of fastball, curveball, changeup and slider. The Gators asked him to shelve the curveball in college, but the Nationals and White Sox have allowed him to return the pitch to his arsenal.
Even with the full complement of offspeed pitches, Dunning’s key is his fastball. The pitch is thrown in the low-90s and can touch 95 mph with wicked two-seam life away from lefthanders.
“I think it’s just natural,” Winston-Salem pitching coach Brian Drahman said. “I think it’s just something he grew up with throwing. Any guy could do that, but I believe (guys) get the feel of that pitch and that takes off for them. Movement is a great thing in baseball.”
Dunning’s best offspeed pitch is his changeup, which he has the confidence to throw to both lefthanders and righthanders. His first strikeout of his most recent start—on Sunday against Carolina (Brewers)—came on a changeup to leadoff man Corey Ray. The slider is a crisp breaker in the low 80s, and is effective as a swing-and-miss pitch as well. The curveball is the fourth pitch, but even it has potential to be better than average with repetition.
“He’s got a lot of raw talent and great sink,” Drahman said. “Pretty good slider and curveball and a good changeup. It’s just a matter of getting experience behind that using his pitches. He knows he can, and he’s putting it together.”
Dunning has hit a few bumps over his last two starts, which have seen him allow six earned runs over 6.1 innings. His most recent start was going well until the fourth inning, when his pitching hand was hit by a comebacker from Carolina’s Trent Clark. His pinkie and ring finger when numb as a result, but he stayed in the game.
He didn’t retire a hitter afterward, and his line looked much uglier as a result. Dunning is fine now, and shouldn’t require a disabled list trip or miss a start as result.
It’s no doubt been a whirlwind year for Dunning, who at this time last year was winding down his final college season and getting ready for a postseason that would take the Gators to the College World Series. Then there was the draft, two stops with the Nats’ system, the trade, his first spring training and now two more minor league stops.
Despite all the travel, Dunning hasn’t been fazed one bit.
“It’s been a lot of fun, actually,” he said. “A lot of people think it’s hectic, but me, I’m just enjoying the ride. I’m just enjoying being out here playing baseball. That’s pretty much it; I’m just trying to have fun.”
He should be at Winston-Salem longer than the rest of his stops, which means he’ll have time to settle in and continue sharpening his pitches, getting re-acclimated to life as a starter and being as aggressive as possible every fifth day.