Senior ‘hunts’ for strikeouts

courier staff

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Western Illinois University starting pitcher Dustin Hunter, often called “Dusty” by his teammates, has fanned 75 opposing batters this year.

This season, Hunter has emerged as one of the most dominant strikeout pitchers in the nation. He is currently in the top 15 in NCAA Division I baseball for strikeouts, tied for 14th as of April 23.

Hunter’s number of strikeouts now ranks him among starting pitchers from Duke (Marcus Stroman, who leads the nation with 102 punchouts), Oklahoma State (Andrew Heaney, No. 2 in nation with 94), Mississippi State (Chris Stratton, 88) and LSU (Kevin Gausman, 88).

The senior 6-foot-2, 210-pound right-hander said he felt honored to be a member of the top 15 list.

“It feels great knowing that I’m competing with a lot of the top pitchers (in the nation),” Hunter said.

Leathernecks head coach Mike Villano believes Hunter’s dominance in the strikeout area tells a lot about his pitching.

“It says that Dustin has a true out pitch,” Villano said. “ He has a swing-and-miss breaking ball that is very hard to lay off of.”

Junior Manny Reyes — who catches for Hunter — said he’s not surprised that his pitcher is having success.

“Dustin has improved a lot since the start of fall practice and has progressed throughout the season as well,” Reyes said. “He works hard and stays focused, and I think that has really helped him succeed on the mound.”

This season, Hunter has a compiled a 3-3 record with a 3.49 ERA in 57 2/3 innings.

His latest outing on Saturday — which resulted in a loss — came at the hands of Oral Roberts (20-18, 7-3), who swept the four game series from the Leathernecks this past weekend. Hunter took the mound for Western in Game 4 of the series.

He entered the game with a record of 3-2 and an ERA of 2.92, but the Golden Eagles were too much for Hunter, as he allowed seven runs (five earned) on five hits and five walks over four innings. The Leathernecks would fall 16-6 in the contest.

The four-game sweep by the Golden Eagles leaves Western with a 12-23 record on the year and 3-8 in conference play.

Hunter said he was not happy with the performance, but believes his team can rebound from the sweep.

“I started out slow,” said the Senath, Mo. native. “We had a rough weekend, but we just got to bounce back against Eastern Illinois this week.”

Prior to the series loss at Oral Roberts, Hunter recorded his first complete game as a Leatherneck.

Hunter pitched against conference-leading North Dakota State, allowing just three runs over nine innings as he led Western Illinois to a 7-3 win.

So why did Hunter choose Western?

After spending two years playing for Mineral Area Community College in Park Hills, Mo., Hunter knew he always wanted to play for a Division I school.

“I went to my JUCO, and then we were playing in a tournament at the end of the year,” Hunter said. “Western saw me pitch and showed interest. I came up and looked at the school and liked it so I came here.”

Hunter was also looking into attending Murray State, but said he felt comfortable with Villano and thought Western was a good fit for him.

Apparently it was, as Hunter was named 2011 Summit League Winter/Spring Academic All-League and was also selected as the Summit League Pitcher of the Week (Feb. 27).

Reyes is glad Hunter chose Western.

“Dustin brings a lot to this team in terms of work ethic and desire to win because he stays positive and works hard and I think he rubs off on the younger guys,” Reyes said. “There’s no question (about) Dustin’s desire to win. I think he proves that by his performance this year on the mound.”

In order for the Leathernecks to win the Summit League Championship, Villano says he will need Hunter at his best.

“We need him to go out every week and put us in a position to win games,” Villano said. “We have dug ourselves a little bit of a hole in the early part of the conference schedule, so we need Dustin and our starters as a whole to come out ready to play every day.”

With it being his last year as a Leatherneck, Hunter says he wants to leave his collegiate career as a Summit League champion.

“I just want to get better and to win,” Hunter said. “I want a chance to make the tournament at the end and win it.”

Reyes said that if anything is certain, Hunter will be sorely missed on this team next year.

“Dustin leaving Western after this year is going be tough on our team, and someone is going to have some big shoes to fill,” Reyes said. “Dustin is (a) great player and teammate, and replacing him in our pitching rotation is going to be difficult.”

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