CHICAGO – Adam Dunn has driven last season behind him the best way he knows how. With his bat.
The 6-foot-6, 280-pound White Sox slugger is determined to make sure that his head-shaking struggles during his first season in Chicago are not affecting his approach in a new year.
With a fresh coach regime in place, a hitting coach in Jeff Manto who's helped his balance with different drills — one by having Dunn hold a medicine ball between his feet in the batting cage — Dunn is looking more like himself.
Yeah, he's still striking out at a high rate, but he's also sending pitches over the fences. His 12th homer in Chicago's 36th game on Monday night surpassed his total for all of last season.
"He's been very good at putting last year behind him and just playing baseball," first-year manager Robin Ventura said. "He's not in the mode of worrying about last year or trying to outdo last year or anything like that, just more of playing the game and he makes it pretty simple."
Ventura never had a season like Dunn did a year ago, although he did go through an 0-for-41 slump as a rookie. Looking ahead and not back is essential for escaping those kind of skids.
"It's not always easy for a lot of people to do, but he's been great at just making it simple for himself," Ventura said.
Dunn called last season one of the most difficult experiences of his life, batting just .159 with 177 strikeouts and a paltry 42 RBIs. At every turn, everyone wanted to know what his problem was. And he was especially bummed that he was letting his teammates down.
Here was a guy who was a respected power hitter for a long time in the National League and had been rewarded with a four-year, $56 million contract to give Chicago the left-handed punch and run producer it needed. Instead, he missed by six plate appearances having the lowest batting average in modern major league history.
Everything seems different now.
"I feel good, it's kind of normal," Dunn said. "Last year wasn't normal."
Dunn got off to a good start a year ago with a home run on opening day, then underwent an emergency appendectomy on April 6. That was a setback and then he had to learn a new league of pitchers and an unfamiliar role as a designated hitter where a batter can go 45 minutes or more between plate appearances.
But his biggest problem was making contact.
"I've put that out of my head so much I don't even know what I was feeling last year. I do know what I'm feeling this year. This is kind of the way I'm used to starting out a season," said Dunn, who homered again on opening day at Texas.
Still, Dunn will never forget the feeling of frustration that was shared by many fans who booed him repeatedly at U.S. Cellular Field. His 177 strikeouts were a club record and he couldn't find a way out of it. No matter what he tried.
Dunn's streak of seven straight seasons with at least 38 homers ended and after the All-Star break, he homered only twice and had eight RBIs. He also struggled mightily against left-handers, batting .064 (6 for 94) with one extra-base hit.
"I know I wouldn't wish that on anybody, whether they are in baseball, football, basketball, writers, anything," Dunn said. "If you want to call it motivation, you can. I don't think you need a lot of motivation to go out and play every day."
Dunn is affable and well-liked in the clubhouse, where his teammates watched him handle his awful season.
"They reason why he came over is because he could hit. He just had a rough year last year," said White Sox right-hander Gavin Floyd. "He's one of the best guys in this clubhouse. You knew with his personality he's going to put it behind him and start fresh. That's what he's been doing."
Ventura said he would try to get Dunn more time at first base to give Paul Konerko time off, and he could play him in left field this coming weekend when the White Sox play the Cubs at Wrigley Field where there will be no DH.
Dunn appeared in 35 games at first and a couple in the outfield last season. He's been at first 12 times already this season and his homer Monday night off Detroit's Drew Smyly was his first against a southpaw since the 2010 season.
Dunn said he got a needed pat on the back at the team's winter convention when the fans cheered him as he was introduced. Even though he recently ended a streak of 36 games in which he struck out at least once — a stretch of whiffs dating to last season — he's been mostly cheered during the first six weeks at U.S. Cellular Field.
"Obviously it make it a little easier when you feel people have your back," he said.
Dunn has been open to various drills from Manto to help him out. But what happened last season wasn't so much physical as it was mental. Especially after it dragged on all season.
"I don't go out and think about mechanics," he said. "When you get on the field, when I'm doing my best, I don't really think about anything except kind of seeing what I'm hitting."
And this year he's been seeing a lot better.
Entering Tuesday, Dunn was 23 homers shy of 400 for his career and had already walked 28 times this season, while batting .250 with 53 strikeouts. He was only 14 RBIs away from last year's total.
"It's a big thing," Ventura added. "You get a three-hole hitter out of what people were seeing last year compared to what you see now. The credit goes to him, the way he came into spring training and he's continuing it into the season."