RALEIGH, N.C.—The very first words out of a breathless Justin Dunn’s mouth were, “I’m on top of the world.” And he meant it.
The junior righthander had just sprinted onto Doak Field with his Boston College teammates, celebrating the Houdini-like escape of a bases-loaded, no-out, ninth-inning jam, celebrating an ACC-opening series win on the road against then-No. 17 North Carolina State and celebrating what all of that represented.
Standing near the visiting dugout, Dunn’s eyes were wide open, smile even wider. With all of the energy still coursing through him, he probably could have run a track meet.
“You can’t describe this,” Dunn said, talking at 50 words per second. “A lot of people come in and doubt us early, so to come out and show that we’re ready to go and we’re ready to play with anybody in the country, this is the weekend that gets it going, and it definitely opened up some eyes for us, I feel like.”
Eye-opening might be the best way to describe Boston College’s season so far. The Eagles are 12-3, off to the best start in program history. Their 2-1 series win against N.C. State—which included two shutouts—is their first conference-opening series win since 2009. That year, incidentally, was the last time the Eagles earned an NCAA regional berth. They’ve missed the cut for the ACC tournament each of the last five seasons. Perhaps this season that changes.
“Just be the same; keep being the same.” That was head coach Mike Gambino’s message to his players after Sunday’s 1-0, series-clinching win against the Wolfpack. Gambino, who’s been at the helm since 2011, said he doesn’t want his players to feel as though they’ve accomplished anything yet.
After all, there are still nine more ACC weekends to play, with a trip to Clemson looming Friday. Right now, for BC, being the same means being confident, being together, being tough. Gambino said he started noticing a shift in culture last season, when the Eagles finished at least .500 (27-27) for the first time since 2010. Boston College returned the bulk of that team this year. The loss of Chris Shaw and his 11 home runs—drafted 31st overall by the Giants—is a significant one but not one that has impacted the team’s psyche.
“The boys are playing well,” Gambino said. “I’ve said it a lot about this team, the thing that’s most fun about this ball club is the chemistry, the togetherness, the brotherhood that they’ve got over there. “Watch them work in B.P., watch them work in practice, they’re focused, they work hard, they have fun doing it. And then it translates into close ball games.”
Two of the three games against N.C. State were decided by one run, and the Eagles will likely play their fair share of close games this year. They lack the middle-of-the-order punch that Shaw provided, but Gambino said he likes the balance in his lineup.
The Eagles will have to manufacture runs—a “death by paper cuts” approach, Gambino said—but so far, that hasn’t been an issue. If the Eagles can lean on one man, it might be senior corner infielder Joe Cronin, the reigning ACC player of the week. Cronin leads the Eagles in nearly every offensive category, batting .389/.485/.667 with two home runs and 19 RBIs in 54 at-bats. He tripled and drove in three in Boston College’s 7-0 win Friday, and he added a two-run homer the next day, showcasing some of the Eagles’ newfound swagger with a post-swing bat flip.
But by and large, the Eagles are a pitching-first team and will go as far as their talented arms take them. It starts with junior Mike King, a 6-foot-3 sinkerballing righthander, who is 3-0, 1.30 and threw seven scoreless innings against the Wolfpack in the series opener.
“He’s everything you want on Friday,” pitching coach Jim Foster said. “He goes out there and gives you his best and usually keeps you in the ballgame.”
Behind King, the Eagles have senior lefthander Jesse Adams, who’s been up and down this year but has had past success with his high-80s fastball, curve and changeup. Big 6-foot-3, 248-pound freshman righthander Jacob Stevens has been a welcome addition as the Sunday starter.
Drafted in the 33rd round by the Phillies, Stevens has yet to allow an earned run 22 2/3 innings into his college career, holding opponents to nine hits. The X-factor for Boston College is Dunn, the team’s closer and Swiss army knife out of the bullpen. He’s also the Eagles’ top prospect, running his fastball up to the high 90s, while also featuring a hard slider and high 70s curve.
Dunn was the first man out of the bullpen Sunday, entering with two outs in the fifth and throwing 3 1/3 innings of scoreless relief, shutting down N.C. State in a 1-0 game. Dunn was lifted after 49 pitches, giving way to four different BC relievers in a tension-filled ninth inning.
That inning typically belongs to Dunn, but the Eagles aren’t afraid to extend him when needed. With his repertoire and pitching feel, Dunn might have a future as a starter at the next level. But the Eagles need him most as a mid-to-late-game sparkplug.
“For us, this team, as soon as he even starts getting loose, the whole team is like, ‘Here we go!’” Gambino said. “To have that for us at the back end is so valuable, and he’s got back-end stuff. You see him in one-inning stints this year, and he’s 95-98 (mph).”
A self-described “high-energy guy,” Dunn brought it on the mound and off on Sunday. His enthusiasm after the win was clear. “This is the best team I’ve seen since I’ve been here in three years, even losing Chris (Shaw),” Dunn said. “We’re excited. We’re definitely all excited this year.”
Life in the Bird Cage
A four-year player for the Eagles between 1996 and 2000, Gambino knows as much as anyone the rigors a Northeast baseball team faces.
With the college baseball season starting in early February, the first month of the season is spent in warmer weather on the road. All 15 of Boston Colleges games this year have come away from Eddie Pellagrini Diamond at Commander Shea Field, colloquially known as the Bird Cage. The Eagles have already traveled more than 11,100 miles, and with Tuesday’s game against Holy Cross postponed due to weather, they won’t make their home debut until March 29.
The season hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Losses to North Dakota State and Butler won’t help the Eagles’ RPI, and, as Gambino said, nine more ACC series do await. There’s still much for the Eagles to prove, to outsiders and to themselves. But Gambino said he’s pleased with the direction his program appears to be heading, in spite of its obstacles.
The coach has heard all of the reasons why Boston College can’t be successful. He’s heard them loud and clear, but he believes he has answers for all of them. Academics: “People use the academics as a reason why we can’t win because we’re looking for academic kids,” he said. “But when you look at what type of baseball players you have, you have really high IQ baseball players—a reason why we win.”
Geography: “They say our location is a reason why we can’t win, because we’re in the Northeast. I think if you take a group of tough Northeast kids sprinkled in with kids around the country who are attracted to Boston and Boston College and our Jesuit tradition, you put that makeup in a club, again, that’s a reason why we can win.”
Facilities: “People talk about our facilities, but you see we can develop players there, and now people don’t like coming and playing in the Bird Cage—again, a reason why we win.”
Moreover, Boston College’s facilities could soon receive a much-needed and highly anticipated upgrade, as the school announced a $200 million plan for athletics that includes a new baseball field. The Eagles aren’t biding their time until then, though. They’ve embraced their current circumstances. They’re trying to win now.
“The travel challenges, the weather challenges, the facility challenges—our boys now know that no matter what gets thrown at us, those things are going to bring us together so much that no adversity flusters them anymore,” Gambino said. “People from the outside will look at BC and say you can’t win there, and we all know on the inside that those are the reasons why we can win.”
At 12-3, BC is giving those outsiders reason to pay attention.