ZEBULON, N.C.—Last season, Dane Dunning was clearly too good for his competition. Originally assigned to low Class A Kannapolis, Dunning blitzed the South Atlantic League in his first four turns through the rotation.
He went 2-0, 0.35 with the Intimidators and recorded an absurd 33 strikeouts against just two walks in 26 innings before being promoted to high Class A Winston-Salem. Dunning wasn’t quite as dominant with the Dash, but his 135 punchouts in 118 innings certainly qualified as solid.
Despite those numbers, he opened 2018 back in Winston-Salem, partly due to an all-prospect rotation at Double-A Birmingham that includes A.J. Puckett, Ian Clarkin, Spencer Adams, Jordan Stephens and Jordan Guerrero.
But that’s not the only reason he’s with Winston-Salem. There are, admittedly, some mechanical kinks he needs to work out before he gets his first taste of the upper levels.
“I’ve been working on this since I got into pro ball, and me and (Winston-Salem pitching coach Matt) Zaleski and all the pitching coaches throughout the White Sox (organization), we’ve been working on the same thing,” Dunning said. “(Between the first and second innings) he told me that I needed to get my glove side up a little bit more and work back to front, and then everything else will fall into place.”
After a lengthy first inning in which he threw 24 pitches and issued a walk to the leadoff man, things started looking more like the beginning of 2017. In all, his first start of the year was five innings of three-hit, one-run ball with eight strikeouts against a pair of walks.
Dunning threw 60 of his 86 pitches for strikes and consistently dotted the corners with a heavy 90-91 mph fastball. Perhaps most importantly for a pitcher like Dunning, who relies so much on sink, he didn’t allow a single out in the air. Of his 15 outs, eight were on strikes, six were on the ground and one came as part of a double play.
He paired the low-90s fastball with his signature changeup, thrown in the low-80s, as well as a slider and curveball. He tweaked the latter pitches a bit this spring as well.
“In spring training, I really worked on a curveball,” he said. “James Shields actually helped me with the grip and everything and I was able to work on that a lot. It was really good today. And I’m working on the slider, getting it a little bit tighter. …I was throwing (the curveball) last year, but I’m throwing it spike now and it’s a little sharper movement and it’s a little different out of the hand, but I like it.”
Dunning said he took to the new grip quickly, after just a few sessions of catch in spring training. The pitch was on display throughout the course of the game, and he used it to freeze Carolina’s Cooper Hummel to lead off the second inning for his second whiff of the day.
“I’ve thrown a curveball since I was kid, so switching it up a little bit wasn’t a big difference,” Dunning said. “It’s the same motion. I’m still throwing it the same, it’s just that the grip’s a little different.”
If Dunning performs over the next couple of weeks like he did on Thursday night, he’ll repeat 2017 and force his way to the next level before too long.
The Winston-Salem lineup was stacked on Thursday night, with the top five hitters each placing among the system’s Top 30 prospects.
That group started the season hot when leadoff man Luis Alexander Basabe stroked the first pitch of the game—a 92 mph fastball on the outside part of the plate from Carolina starter Marcos Diplan—to the warning track in left field for an opposite-field double.
Left fielder Blake Rutherford followed by smoking a single to right field. Both Basabe and Rutherford—acquired in trades with the Red Sox (Chris Sale) and the Yankees (Todd Frazier, Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson), respectively—each collected a pair of hits on Opening Day.
Diplan sat between 92-95 and touched 96 with his fastball during the course of his outing, but struggled mightily with his command. At its best the fastball featured two-seam life, but he left the ball up often and got hit hard as a result. He struggled to repeat his high-effort delivery, and fell off the mound often after follow through.
Top Brewers prospect Keston Hiura had a rough go on Opening Day. The club’s 2017 first-round pick out of UC Irvine went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts. He let the ball travel deep in the zone and gave Dunning an early eight-pitch battle in the first inning, but sometimes waited until it was too late to pull the trigger.