'Another great job' by Dunning, Rangers' Swiss Army knife

Filling in for injured deGrom, righty continues to excel as starter after dominating out of 'pen

May 17th, 2023

ARLINGTON -- told the Rangers’ staff in Spring Training that he just wanted to be the “best Swiss Army knife that I can be.”

Whatever role the Rangers need him to play, he wants to be able to fill that spot and help the team win.

A month and a half into the season, Dunning has done exactly that. In the Rangers’ 7-4 win over the Braves on Tuesday night at Globe Life Field, the 28-year-old right-hander was the star of the show, tossing six innings of one-run ball against Atlanta’s high-powered offense.

“What another great job by Dane,” said Rangers manager Bruce Bochy. “He looked strong early, his stuff was actually up a little bit. He just got better with the command and everything, the movement. He just did another tremendous job. That's a tough lineup to navigate through, and he was seeing them again and making even better pitches. Since he's stepped in the rotation, he has just been unbelievable.”

Against the Braves, Dunning allowed six hits and a fair bit of traffic on the basepaths, but he consistently got out of any potential trouble after allowing a run off a pair of singles in the second inning. Only two runners even reached scoring position in his final four innings.

In three starts since replacing the injured Jacob deGrom in the rotation, Dunning has allowed just three runs in 17 innings, good for a 1.59 ERA. But speaking of being a Swiss Army knife, he was doing this out of the bullpen, too. In eight relief appearances to start the season, Dunning allowed five runs (four earned) in 20 1/3 innings, good for a 1.77 ERA.

It has been a dramatic turnaround for a guy who entered the season with a career ERA of 4.43 in 63 big league games. 

“I kind of went back last year just to look over things, and I think last year I kind of threw myself into a wall a little bit just being frustrated with some outings,” Dunning said. “Talking with my brother helped a lot with things, just with letting things go. Like, once the game’s over, it’s over. There’s nothing you can do about it except move on to the next. 

“I’ve been taking that approach with myself. The guys down in the bullpen, they helped me out a ton, especially the start of the season. I’ve really been able to help myself to be able to stay in a good mindset.”

Dunning has said multiple times throughout Spring Training and into the early months of the season that the hip surgery that he underwent in September 2022 has made all the difference. He has been able to move more freely and drive consistently off his back leg down the mound. Earlier this season, he said it was “night and day” recognizing the difference in his strength, drive and looseness down the mound with a healthy body.

But Dunning has, no doubt, looked like a better version of himself in all aspects, more than just health. 

“He’s just got a quiet confidence that you love,” Bochy said. “He just stays under control, but he has that fire and he's such a good competitor, but yet it’s a little bit of a low motor, too. That works. It works with men in scoring position, it works when you're going against a good lineup. He has that maniacal focus out there on every pitch.”

Dunning was pushed out of the Rangers' rotation this offseason due to the veteran free-agent signings of deGrom, Andrew Heaney and Nathan Eovaldi. He excelled with the move to the bullpen, and he has almost gotten even better with his return to the rotation.

deGrom may still be weeks away from returning, but when he does, Bochy no doubt has a decision to make. Dunning won’t usurp the Rangers’ ace in the rotation, that’s for sure. But will he replace somebody else? Maybe a six-man rotation is in play, or Dunning just returns to the bullpen, where Texas could certainly use him.

There are worse problems for Bochy to have to solve.

“I am looking forward to [the decision],” Bochy said. “It's a nice problem to have. We're a little ways from getting to figuring out what we're going to do then. Dane just has so much value wherever you put him, starting or relieving. Good for him. He's been relentless since Spring Training, in any role you put him in. So I can't tell you what's going to happen. We'll cross that bridge when we get to it.”