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The Winding Road: Dugan Darnell takes unconventional path to professional baseball

Spokane Indians relief pitcher Dugan Darnell wasn’t always a pitcher. In fact, not too long ago he was out of baseball entirely – though briefly.

Not only have the Colorado Rockies taken a chance with the converted infielder, Darnell has already been promoted a level this season, with his sights set higher. Darnell, 24, hasn’t had one of those magical moments where everything clicked for him, but he may end up having a storybook ending regardless.

“It was just a matter of getting comfortable once I got here and got into my routine, working with the trainers and pitching coaches,” he said last week. “I couldn’t ask for anything better.”

Since his promotion to the Indians on May 30, Darnell has been serving as the team’s closer, registering four saves and finishing 11 of the 17 games he’s appeared in. He appeared in eight games for Low-A Fresno earlier this season with no saves.

He’s relishing the closer’s role.

“Since I started pitching a few years ago, closing has been very close to my heart,” he said. “I love that role. I love how the team gets me in a position to close out. They did their jobs, it’s time for me to do my job, and it’s just a great thing.”

He doesn’t take the opportunity for granted.

“I’m very thankful for it every day,” he said. “I know nothing in this world is given, you have to work for everything, and I surely did that. I’m going to continue to do that, to continue to do my job.”

Darnell uses an over-the-top delivery and features a four-seam fastball with some arm-side ride, a tumbling splitter he uses as a change-up and a traditional 12-to-6 curveball.

“I don’t really have a set way to attack,” he said. “It’s all depending on who the batters are, what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are.

“It’s all about changing the eye level and basically just playing with deception.”

100 pounds “soaking wet”

At 5-foot-1 and barely 100 pounds, Darnell played shortstop at Northville (Michigan) High School.

“I was always the smallest guy on every team,” he said. “I was that little shortstop who was just fast and quick and a contact hitter.”

No one suggested pitching to him.

“At the time, I was just way better at playing shortstop,” he said. “So they were just like, ‘We need you at short. Go be a great shortstop.’ And that’s where my head was, that’s where my heart was.”

By the end of high school he had grown to 5-9, 160 and developed into a pretty good hitter – good enough to continue his playing career at Division III power Adrian College.

He kept growing and moved over to third base. Before too long, the previously scrawny kid filled out to a robust 6-foot-2.

He was fooling around with teammates one day throwing off the mound, and he was surprisingly topping out in the low 90s.

“That was the end of my junior year, beginning my senior year,” he said. “And that was where it all started. At first, I was just playing third base and chucking it hard over to first.”

The coach added to Darnell’s responsibilities. His senior year he played third and was the squad’s closer.

“I didn’t throw anything but a fastball,” he said. “I’d go from playing third base for eight innings to just go straight to the mound, throw as hard as I could and get my three outs.

“My body grew a lot more, I got more into the weight room, got into arm care, all that, and next thing I know my senior year is a different story.”

In his first season pitching in 2019, Darnell recorded a school-record eight saves with a 0.39 ERA, striking out 37 over 23 innings. At the plate, he hit .314 with 43 RBI. He was named Division III fourth-team, according to

Change of plans

Despite his successful senior season, Darnell went undrafted. He played summer ball, then started preparing for a professional life outside of baseball and considered following his brother’s path as a financial advisor.

After an extensive interview process, he landed a job in Chicago and started climbing the corporate ladder.

But baseball was never far from his mind.

Then, one day at lunch he got a call from the Gary (Indiana) Southshore Railcats of the independent American Association.

He dropped everything and joined the team within days. He appeared in only three games with Gary, but that led to an opportunity with the East Side Diamond Hoppers of the United Shore Professional Baseball League.

In 2020 with East Side, Darnell earned five saves and allowed just four runs in 28 innings. He finished the season with a 0.31 ERA.

“I was having a really good year,” he said. “At the end of the year a lot of different teams were calling just saying ‘hey you’re on our radar.’

“But with COVID, nobody really knew what opportunities were going to present themselves so that was just kind of put on hold.”

Undeterred and with a new lease on baseball, Darnell continued to work out and refine his repertoire. He created recruitment videos and sent them out to Major League teams.

Eventually, the Colorado Rockies called and offered him a shot. After an impressive spring training he was assigned to Low-A Fresno.

The art of baseball

Darnell has only been pitching for a couple of years now, so every time he’s on the mound he’s still learning about how to pitch, and how his body responds to the grind.

“I like to think I was competing at a high level as a hitter, you know, learning what pitchers are going to do in certain counts,” he said. “What I was looking for as a hitter kind of was helping me because I gained all that intel, coming through college, that helps me out a lot pitching. I’m thinking what the hitter’s thinking, so it makes my job a lot easier.

“It’s a cat and mouse game.”

It’s not the same as when he first started throwing off the mound, simply trying to chuck a fastball by every hitter.

“It’s an art. (Pitching coach Ryan) Kibler and I talk about pitching all the time. Pitching is an art, and you got to find the pieces to put together and get the job done.”

Darnell has seen several teammates get promoted to Double-A Hartford already this season and he hopes that with continued success he’ll get that phone call too.

“I’m just focused on what I can control,” he said. “You hear it so many times, ‘Just control what you can.’ That’s really the best way to go about it because if you don’t, you’re gonna lose sleep over stuff you can’t control.

“So that’s the kind of mindset that I take to the ballpark every day. Just try to be better than I was yesterday, and find ways to do that, and everything else will fall in place.”