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DUNFORD CALM IN FACE OF EVERYTHING EXCEPT DRAFT
TIMON/ST. JUDE PITCHER WANTS BALL IN BIG MOMENTS

It's almost impossible to fluster Ryan Dunford. The Timon/St. Jude pitcher is as unflappable as they come. Runner on third while holding a 1-0 lead? Old news. A sterling performance to win the Empire State Games? Done that. League championship on the line? Big deal.

"I think I'm the most confident person that anyone will ever meet," Dunford said. "I always want to be out there when it's on the line."

But there is one thing that gets the senior backpedaling. It's just a five-letter word, but it carries millions of opportunities that get the brain frazzled and the nerves hopping: draft. As in the Major League Baseball draft.

"It's crazy just thinking about it," he said. "It gives me the goose bumps just when people say the word draft. If I did (get drafted), that would make my life. That would be amazing. I would go to college, but that would just be anything I could ever ask for."

If Dunford keeps sending batters back to the bench wondering how a ball can move that much, there's no reason not to think his name could be called someday. He said the Pittsburgh Pirates have taken a look at him, and there's a good reason why: He's good.

The 18-year-old has spent the last four years baffling batters. He's 22-5 for Timon with an ERA of 0.98. His 280 strikeouts in 187 innings are mixed in with four no-hitters, one of which came when he clinched the Tigers' second straight Georgetown Cup last June. He's also pitched the gold medal-clinching game in the last two Empires.

"He knows how to pitch," said Timon coach Jim Palano. "He's very intelligent. What he probably does great is he bears down when he gets in a jam. He really knows how to bear down when there's men on base, when he's got to go after it and get an out. He's got a lot of upside to him."

It was evident early. As a freshman, Dunford just wanted to make the varsity squad, but when he made it he wanted to make an impact. Palano handed him the ball in the Georgetown Cup opener, so Dunford knew he could pitch.

"Ever since then I knew he had confidence in me and I'd do pretty well," Dunford said.

The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder has been playing since he was 5, but it was fourth grade when he learned how to throw a curveball. His dad, Bill, and older brother Brendan showed it to him, and knees have been buckling since. It's the pitch that's earned him a scholarship to Pittsburgh of the Big East.

"Anytime you can throw a breaking ball for a strike you're going to have success," said Pitt assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Dan Ninemire. "He's got command of the pitch and can hit his locations. Anytime you can do that you're going to have a lot of opportunities at this level."

His fastball isn't shabby, either. His catcher credits that pitch -- clocked at 87 mph last summer at Empires -- with setting up the whiff-inducing curveball.

"It doesn't compare to anybody. He's two steps above anybody else's velocity," said Timon senior Kevin Simson. "He sets up every other pitch with his fastball. It's the sixth inning of the game and his curveball is still breaking people's ankles because they're afraid to get hit. People don't want to step to the plate when he's pitching. He's intimidating. He's been pitching four years at the varsity level and people are still intimidated by him.

"As terrible as he is for batters, he's the easiest guy to catch. He's always right where you want. You put your glove out there, it's going to hit your glove. You've just got to squeeze."

Dunford has other athletic talents -- he's first-team All-Catholic in basketball and football -- but it's baseball he loves. He always relishes the countdown to opening day for the Yankees and visits Pitt's Web site daily to track the Panthers' progress.

But it's standing on the mound that stokes him. He walks slowly toward it every inning, and when he gets there, he owns the diamond. While repeatedly adjusting his cap, he points his fielders to proper positions and exudes a confidence that puts others at ease.

"He competes," said Ninemire, who watched Dunford at the last two Empires. "He got out there and he wasn't afraid of anything. He got after it."

"I feel you have the most control over it when you're a pitcher," Dunford said. "As a wide receiver in football, the quarterback needs to throw you the ball. In basketball, it's a five-man game. But out there you have total control."

On days Dunford doesn't pitch, he still shows the team he's there. He's the first off the bench to fist-tap the pitcher, first to the fence to prop up the batter. There's a simple reason for it.

"He's a baseball player," Palano said. "He's a baseball guy."

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com