The first noise was a gasp of disbelief. The second, an audible cheer. And the third, simply laughter.
Those were the reactions of the many scouts in the Shea Field press box, all gathered to watch Boston College baseball’s Justin Dunn in the fifth inning. Dunn, typically the Saturday starter for the Eagles, was slotted to toss in the middle innings of the first of a two-game series with Niagara University. It was all part of head coach Mike Gambino’s plot to take full advantage of his team’s bye, a nonconference slate against a weak opponent rather than the weekend’s typical run through the gauntlet of the ACC.
Most college pitchers would react negatively to a change in their routine—perhaps some shakiness or discomfort that can get them out of their groove. Justin Dunn isn’t like most college pitchers.
The junior from Freeport, N.Y. stole the show in a 7-2 victory for BC (28-18, 11-14 Atlantic Coast) against the Purple Eagles of Niagara (16-31-1, 11-10 Metro Atlantic Athletic) in the first meeting between the two schools. He struck out six batters in three innings of work, tying a single-game career-high from a 5 2/3 inning start vs. Virginia Tech from earlier this season.
In that fifth inning, Dunn had all those scouts whispering to one another, sharing the same thought: Whichever MLB team selects Dunn in June’s Amateur Draft is going to be very happy with what they have.
Catcher Joel Brophy went down first, swinging on Dunn’s biting slider that darted across the plate. Then came Darian Blanks, stymied by a nearly 12-6 curveball on the inside edge that buckled his knees. Finally, Julian Gallup couldn’t catch up to a 96 mile per hour fastball. Disbelief, cheers, and laughter. And Dunn felt like everything was clicking for him just right.
“I took more of the attack mentality, coming at them with everything I had,” Dunn said. “And the curveball felt really good, best it has felt all year.” Dunn also lauded his ability to throw his changeup, likely the fourth-best pitch in his arsenal, yet one that looked fantastic in his abbreviated outing.
Not to be outdone was starter Mike King, who earned the win and increased his record to 7-3. In his share of the game, King tossed three innings, allowing only one hit and one walk while striking out two. Friday starter Jacob Stevens also got an abbreviated look, though his did not go as well. The freshman threw 62 pitches in only two innings, giving up two runs (one earned) with three walks and four strikeouts.
Gambino planned earlier in the week to use all three of his starters so they could get an equal amount of work in in the two-game series. It also gives the Eagles a luxury to rearrange the rotation if need be for the opening game of their series against Georgia Tech, which begins on Thursday. If BC wins two of the three games or sweeps the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta, it is likely that the team will make its first ACC Tournament since 2009. The head coach believes his plan worked to perfection.
“It was great, we switched it up a ton,” Gambino said. “We were trying to do two things: win a baseball game and set ourselves up for the weekend, and I think we did that.”
On the offensive side, BC exploited some slow movement to the plate by Niagara starter Zachary Kolodziejski and poor catching by Brophy—the junior gave up four stolen bases and let runners advance on four wild pitches and a passed ball. A lot of that fiery play on the basepaths began with Jake Palomaki.
The scrappy leadoff man had another career day: Palomaki was 3-4 at the plate with two runs scored, two RBIs, a walk, and three stolen bases. While his batting average is down from last season—.256 after Saturday from .289 last year—he still gets on base at an impressive .394 clip, best on the team. He has also reached base in the last six games, and 39 of BC’s 46 contests. Gambino credits his success to focusing on his handwork, rather than pressing with some rotational work in his hands.
“Finally getting my timing down, seeing the ball out of hand, topping on the fastball, and seeing pitches in the zone, that’s all been a real big help for me,” Palomaki said.
But it was the Eagles’ pitching that was the lead story yet again. If they plan on making the ACC Tournament, they can’t afford for it not to be. Then again, when you have a guy like Dunn, everything becomes a little more relaxed.
Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor