Has Dane Dunning pitched well enough for the White Sox to consider using him on a regular basis moving forward?
"I would say yes," manager Rick Renteria said, matter of factly.
A lot of people would concur with the South Side skipper after Dunning, in his second major league start, turned in five no-hit innings Sunday afternoon.
Renteria signaled well before Dunning even took the mound that the 25-year-old right-hander coming back from Tommy John surgery would be limited in his pitch count, probably around the same total he threw in his big league debut a week and a half before, when he tossed 73 pitches in an impressive outing against the Detroit Tigers.
Sunday against the Kansas City Royals, Dunning looked even better. But when he reached 79 pitches after five innings, that looked to be about it, and indeed it was.
"We were strong in the conviction, in the program we had established for him, and we were going to stick to it," Renteria said after the game, saying there was never any consideration given to sending Dunning back out for the sixth. "When he came out, he was kind of surprised he was done. But we're doing everything we can to make sure we bring him along at a pace that we ultimately feel very comfortable with. But he's feeling really, really good."
Far more important than Dunning being the second White Sox pitcher in a week to not allow a hit to an opposing lineup is whether Dunning's appearances will become a regular occurrence for a White Sox team trying to chase down the franchise's first playoff spot in more than a decade and make some noise come October.
The White Sox starting rotation has put up some good numbers, as of this writing ranking fifth in baseball and second in the American League with a 3.50 ERA. But there are undoubtedly some questions past Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel at the top, making it no surprise that the team has been linked to several starting pitchers in trade rumors in recent days.
Dylan Cease has a very good 3.00 ERA, but he's allowed some home runs and walked some guys and found himself in some jams, including in Saturday's White Sox loss, a no decision for Cease in which he gave up only a run but was out before the end of the fifth inning. Similarly, Reynaldo López hasn't given up a ton in his two starts since returning from the injured list, just four runs in the pair of outings, but he's logged just 7.1 innings. Carlos Rodón remains on the injured list with shoulder soreness, a stay that's kept him out of action since Aug. 3. All three entered the 2020 season with questions about how consistent they could be, and whether due to circumstances out of their control or not, they haven't been able to answer them to this point, with half the regular season to go.
It's not to say that any combination of those three pitchers couldn't figure things out and deepen the South Side starting staff. But Dunning has looked excellent in his limited action. Call him the hot hand or a highly touted pitching prospect who's showing what he's capable of right out of the chute. Regardless, with what he's done so far, he's earned the right to be part of the White Sox starting-pitching mix moving forward.
"He's continuing to throw the ball very well, keeping us in the ballgame, obviously giving us a good chance," Renteria said. "As they're coming off of their injuries and we kind of monitor them so closely to make sure they're coming through good, he threw the ball very well. And we just make sure we're more conservative in terms of how far we keep them going.
"He threw five great innings of baseball, obviously gave us a chance, gave himself a chance to win a ballgame, and we're very happy with the way he threw the ball."
Dunning said after his start Sunday that the team hadn't yet talked to him about remaining a permanent fixture in this rotation as the White Sox jockey with the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians in the AL Central standings. After an inconsistent 2019 season, White Sox fans might be ready for an alternative to López. After an unhealthy few seasons, who knows how reliable Rodón can be. And then there's Monday's trade deadline, which could see the White Sox add to their starting staff.
As of right now, Dunning's not bumping anyone out of the rotation. Rodón's still on the IL, though he was scheduled to throw three innings and 60 pitches Sunday at the team's alternate training site in Schaumburg. But if his return is imminent and/or the White Sox bring in an outside addition, rotation spots could be harder to come by.
But with 14 strikeouts and just three runs allowed in his 9.1 innings of work — all of them coming on a three-run homer against the Tigers — Dunning has earned that opportunity. Certainly, though, there are some pieces that need to fall into place in the coming days before Renteria can write out a rotation past the upcoming three-game set in Minneapolis.
Dunning's just hoping to be involved in some fashion.
"Honestly just trying to help the team win in any way possible," he said. "Just trying to throw strikes. And we have a great defense behind us. Just trying to get them at the plate (to hit)."