Nearly a year ago, Shawon Dunston Jr. sat in the Boise Hawks manager's office, mired in a slump like he'd never experienced, told he was being sent down.
"This year, we're talking about how far he's come," Hawks manager Gary Van Tol said.
Dunston hit .185 in 19 games to start the 2012 season with Boise, getting fewer hits (12) than strikeouts (14), before being sent down July 11 to the Cubs' Rookie League team in Mesa, Ariz.
What a difference a year makes.
Through Sunday's 1-for-4 showing, the Hawks outfielder leads the team with a .353 batting average, fourth-best in the Northwest League.
"It's maybe the most humbling thing that's happened to me," said Dunston, who hit .286 in Mesa. "I got some confidence back when I was in Arizona, and it's been for a reason, I guess, because so far this year it's been for the better."
The son of a two-time All-Star for the Cubs who also played for five other Major League teams, Dunston turned down a chance to play at Vanderbilt after being drafted in the 11th round in 2011. He signed for $1.275 million, he had a name beloved by Cubs fans, and hit .319 as a high school senior in northern California.
Hitting below the Mendoza Line was unexpected and unwelcome.
"It was the first time like I really felt I'd failed in baseball - I'd have games in high school where I'd have one hit, and thought that was bad," Dunston said. "Last year, that wasn't me."
As the Hawks' primary leadoff hitter this season, Dunston has fit the spot well, drawing six walks to seven strikeouts, a .421 on-base percentage and has stolen three bases (he stole one last year in Boise).
"There's been a noticeable difference in the right direction with him," Van Tol said. "When he's out there, his mind is in the right place. He's not overthinking, he's being more selective, and when he's on, he is thinking of stealing bases, and we need that."
Dunston said in his first professional season, "I'd keep pressing and putting myself in a bigger and bigger hole." This year, that aggression has been channeled mostly in the right direction.
Though he was thrown out at home Sunday trying to score from third on a fielder's choice, during Saturday's game against Eugene, Dunston ripped a sharp grounder that deflected off Emeralds first baseman Trae Santos. Right fielder Henry Charles jogged toward the ball, and Dunston took off for second. The throw got there too late, and Dunston had his fourth double of the season.
"I'm not going to hit 40 home runs, so I've got to make a difference however I can, getting an extra base here and there, getting a steal, putting down a bunt, just setting the table for the guys hitting behind me," said Dunston, who added another double Sunday.
Before, during and after Dunston struggled, his father had a key piece of advice for him, which has firmly taken root in his son's second season in Boise.
"Just grind it out, every at-bat, every day," Dunston said. "Each time you get up there, if you've got five hits or are 0-for-5, just grind it out. I'm not wasting any at-bats, and think my approach each day is a lot better than it was a year ago. So far, it's worked well; now I just have to keep it going."
HAWKS WIN 4TH STRAIGHT
With the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the ninth inning, Matt Iannazzo stepped in for the Boise Hawks and got the save, inducing a Yair Lopez groundout in a 6-5 win over the Eugene Emeralds at Memorial Stadium.
Jordan Hankins provided the go-ahead runs with a two-RBI single in the bottom of the eighth, his first hit with the Hawks (9-8), after 0-for-12 start. Yasiel Balaguert had two hits, including his second home run in as many days, to increase his Northwest League-leading RBI output to 22.
Eugene falls to 5-12 after losing its seventh straight.
Dave Southorn: 377-6420;Twitter: @IDS_Southorn