When Boston College recruited lanky righthander Justin Dunn out of the Gunnery School in Connecticut, coach Mike Gambino saw a pitcher with the body, athleticism, quick arm, and makeup to suggest all kinds of potential. It took little time for that outlook to come to fruition.
A pitcher who threw 84-86 m.p.h. early in his senior year of high school was throwing 89-90 by the end of that season, with a bump up to 93 m.p.h. in his limited work as a college freshman. Yet a call in the summer of 2014 from Dunn to Gambino about velocity represented an unexpected sort of milestone.
“He was starting to fall in love with that velocity,” Gambino recalled. “Sometimes when you see that velocity jump, it’s like they’ve found a new toy. At that point in his freshman year, he was still kind of throwing instead of pitching. I think a really big turning point in his growth and development was in summer baseball.
“He called me and said, ‘Hey coach, I touched 96 for the first time last night.’ I said, ‘That’s awesome.’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, and a kid from Mississippi State hit it over the scoreboard.’ I said, ‘That’s even better.’
“He said: ‘I get it now. I see it now. The velocity doesn’t matter. When I get up there and just try to throw, I’m not very good. I’ve got to learn how to pitch.’ That was a big ‘Aha!’ moment for his development.”
Dunn has jumped from springboard to springboard since that time, learning to employ a four-pitch mix (fastball that sits in the low- to mid-90s and tops out at 98, a swing-and-miss slider, a changeup, and curveball) in a fashion that has made him an electrifying performer as a junior.
After opening the year in the BC bullpen — where he spent most of last year, in deference to the team’s need for a back-end presence behind an experienced rotation — he shifted to a starting role in April. In that capacity, he’s dominated, going 3-1 with a 1.34 ERA in eight starts while striking out 49 and walking 13 in 47 innings.
Most recently, he delivered a complete-game win against Georgia Tech in the ACC conference tournament, then struck out a career-high 11 against Tulane in the NCAA Regionals to jump-start BC’s emergence from a four-team field in Oxford, Miss.
The ability to sustain his stuff over the course of his outings differentiates what Dunn is doing now compared with the way he performed in the rotation at the start of 2015. Instead of trying to throw every pitch as hard as he can, he’s maintaining a controlled effort level while mixing his pitches to create unpredictable sequences.
“I try to pitch in the range of 90-92,” Dunn said. “That’s where mentally I’d like to think I’m pitching. If it comes out harder than that, it comes out harder than that. Lately it has been, which is a blessing.
“I feel pretty confident in all four [pitches]. That’s what makes it so hard for hitters. A hitter in a 1-and-2 count can’t eliminate one.”
His ascent not only has contributed to the Eagles’ run to the NCAA Super Regional — they face Miami for the right to advance to the College World Series —
While this year’s draft, which starts Thursday night, remains highly uncertain even at the top, talent evaluators expect Dunn to come off the board no later than the middle of the first round, with the possibility that he might be gone by the time the Red Sox pick at No. 12.
“Dave [Dombrowski] loves power arms, and especially college power arms,” said Gambino, who was a Tigers amateur scout under the current Red Sox president of baseball operations. I think Justin fits very much.
“I’d say it’s going to be close. I’m not sure he’ll get that far. I think the conversation with him is do you believe he could be a No. 1 starter in the big leagues or a No. 3 starter in the big leagues? He’s got four future plus to plus-plus pitches that you’d grade out, where you could put a 60 or higher on [the 20-80 scouting scale, where 50 is average] for future grades.
“He’s got now stuff, and he also still has some projection. There’s still so much room in his body. He’s going to get bigger. He’s going to get stronger. He’s still barely shaving. I wouldn’t be surprised if he grows 3 more inches.
“You’ve got now stuff with command, with athleticism and projection. That’s why I think the conversation to me, in a room, is, ‘Do we believe he’s a No. 1 starter or a 2 or a 3?’ ”
Dunn recognizes that the start of his professional career is nearly upon him, but for now, his attention is turned toward more immediate possibilities — foremost the chance for BC to advance to the College World Series for the first time since 1967.
“This is what I’ve been working for since I got here as a freshman,” he said. “Coming in, you can look at the struggles we had as a program. This is the culmination of a lot of hard work we’ve put in.
“That’s kind of where my focus is and where the team’s focus is, to get to Omaha. As far as the draft, it’s a great opportunity, but to be honest, I haven’t even really thought about it. I’m just enjoying playing with my teammates, playing as long as we can.”