ARLINGTON — When Dane Dunning walked off the mound in the eighth inning Saturday night, he was still in the zone as the 36,097 fans at Globe Life Field loudly applauded his performance.
It was a well-deserved standing ovation for the right-hander, who tossed 7 2/3 innings of one-run ball against the reigning World Series-champion Braves to help lead the Rangers to a 3-1 victory.
Dunning opened his start with three straight strikeouts of Braves sluggers Ronald Acuña Jr., Matt Olson and Austin Riley — and he never slowed down from there. He finished with a season-high seven strikeouts as he easily worked his way through Atlanta’s powerful lineup.
“It was the Dane Dunning show,” said Rangers manager Chris Woodward. “You could see the intent from the first inning. If anything, I think that set the tone for our entire ballclub. I know he struck out the side, but it was just the way he moved down the mound. Frankly, that’s what we needed. I wasn’t shocked by the outcome after seeing that first inning, just seeing how well he executed and the life on the pitches. That’s as good as I’ve ever seen. He won the game for us.”
Dunning tossed a season-high 98 pitches in the outing, notable because of the short leash he had in 2021.
Coming off Tommy John surgery in 2019 and with no Minor League season in ’20, Texas’ staff wanted to take every precaution to keep Dunning healthy. That resulted in few outings that went more than six innings. Dunning understood the situation, but he was understandably frustrated. Even this season, with a shortened Spring Training, the Rangers’ starters were on limited pitch counts as they continued to build up fully.
But now, the handcuffs are off, and Dunning is free to let loose. He did exactly that against Atlanta, turning in the longest outing of his career as well as the longest by a Rangers pitcher this season.
Dunning said he felt a weight lifted off of his shoulders knowing he could go 100 pitches if he was performing well enough. He even joked that he wanted to go full-Nolan Ryan and throw 120 pitches for a complete game, before adding that he would have finished the eighth and gone into the ninth if necessary.
“I made a promise to those guys,” Woodward said. “I talked to all the starters and said, ‘Hey, we’ve done our part for the first month to hopefully protect you.’ To hopefully get ahead of something proactively to keep them safe. Now, the leash is off. I owed that to Dane from last year. I promised him that, and I was looking forward to seeing him tonight. I didn’t have any thoughts to even consider getting him [earlier].”
Dunning also provided a shutdown first inning for the first time this season. First innings were a notable Achilles’ heel for him in his rookie season. In 2021, he posted a 7.92 ERA in the first, as opposed to a 3.62 ERA in all other innings combined.
After running into the same issues this season, Dunning spent time with co-pitching coaches Doug Mathis and Brendan Sagara to remedy those struggles.
“It was really just a change in mindset,” Dunning said. “It’s going into the first inning and feeling like I’m closing out the game, instead of starting it out. It’s also in my bullpens, throwing a bit more offspeed in there and getting that feel and command early on with the offspeed. I feel like it’s helping a bunch. Other than that, it’s just a simple gameplan of how we’re going to attack each hitter.”
Dunning credited the defense behind him and the offense for putting together a complete team win.
After losing the series opener on Friday, Woodward said he wanted to come back and “shake things up a bit.” Two new faces entered Texas’ lineup on Saturday and both contributed to the win.
“Sam did a great job behind the plate,” Dunning said. “We were pretty spot on with what we wanted to do with each batter, and he was fantastic in between innings, just talking about each hitter and the approach that we’re gonna go with. I thought he did a phenomenal job. It gives me a lot of confidence knowing that we’re on the same page constantly.”