Ex-Gator Dunning looks right at home at Trop

April 2nd, 2024

ST. PETERSBURG -- Florida Gator baseball alum hasn’t had the opportunity to pitch in his home state often.

Dunning was born in Orange Park, Fla., and attended Clay High School in Green Cove Springs, a suburb of Jacksonville approximately 200 miles northeast of Tropicana Field.

When the Rangers faced the Rays on Monday, it marked just the second time that Dunning had pitched at The Trop, the other coming on April 12, 2021, his second appearance with the Rangers.

Dunning dealt 6 1/3 innings, allowing just three runs while the Rangers’ high-powered offense continued its dominance en route to a 9-3 victory. The Rangers are off to a 3-1 start for the second consecutive season after not starting 3-1 or better since 2013.

Dunning joked in the postgame media scrum on the field about being the Gator of the Game, in playful reference to fellow University of Florida alum Wyatt Langford, who started in left field for the Rangers and notched a single in the fourth inning.

It was an easy first six innings for the 29-year-old right-hander. Dunning faced the minimum over his first four frames, and no Rays hitter got past second base until the seventh. Dunning was dealing until then, when a homer (Richie Palacios), walk (Curtis Mead) and another homer (Jose Siri) got Tampa Bay on the board for the first time. After another walk to eight-hole hitter Austin Shenton, Dunning’s day was finished.

“It definitely felt really good to get the ball rolling with the first one of the season,” Dunning said. “I was extremely antsy before that start; I don’t think I threw a single strike in the bullpen. I was just kind of rushing, so I had to tell myself to slow down. And then once the game hit, I was kind of back to it from there.”

“First-game jitters,” he added about why he was antsy. “Going off of last year, I haven’t started since the regular season, so it just took a little time.”

Dunning experimented with a forkball variant this spring, and he seemed to be pleased enough with it to throw it in a regular-season game.

“I threw one [to Palacios],” Dunning said. “It went about 10 rows deep. I just wasn’t on top of it. It was just a bad pitch, middle-middle. I was trying to get something soft to him, but it just floated. It didn’t have any bite to it, and it got hit hard.”

Though Dunning got knocked out before finishing the seventh inning, it was furthest into the game a Rangers starter has gone so far in the young season.

Dunning's four walks were his most in a game since April 30, 2023, at Milwaukee, and he hit an additional two batters. But it was a good sign for Dunning, who will no doubt be a vital part of the Rangers’ staff down the stretch this season.

Dunning opened the 2023 season in the bullpen, where he made each of his first eight appearances, and then transitioned back to the rotation after Jacob deGrom landed on the injured list with a torn right UCL. He started 26 of his last 27 outings in the regular season, but he made six appearances and just one start in the postseason.

“He's got good command, he's got four pitches working both sides, movement, and just does a great job,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “In fact, he probably hit a couple batters and walked a couple more than what he normally does. … But yeah, Dane, what a great job he did. He probably ran out of gas there a little bit in the seventh, trying to push him through that, but it's a well-played game.”