Lines drawn when it comes to assessing Dunn's value

In the span of one awful week, pennant-race enthusiasm in Phoenix gave way to disappointment and two salient questions:

1. What's wrong with the Diamondbacks?
2. How about those Arizona Cardinals?

Nothing kills the mood like a teamwide offensive malaise, rough patches by Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, a suspect bullpen and an 0-6 trip to Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Adam Dunn, nevertheless, finds it invigorating to come to the park even though his team is 3½ games behind the Dodgers in the National League West. With good reason: Total the deficits from the outfielder's first seven big league seasons in Cincinnati, and the Reds entered the final month a combined 110 games out of first place. They rarely were within a curvature of the Earth of the division lead.

Dunn, just passing through Arizona on his way to free agency, is learning that pennant-race pressure can be a blast. Whether he's shooting the breeze with Randy Johnson at the locker stall next door or sensing a murmur in the crowd when he steps up to the plate in a big situation, his senses are on alert. This is how it feels to play in September for reasons other than pride and personal statistics.

"It's almost like Opening Day every single day," Dunn said. "And you don't have to drink four pots of coffee to get going for the game."

Dunn doesn't need any extra motivation this weekend. The Diamondbacks, with their NL West title hopes getting remoter by the day, are trying to regain their equilibrium in a three-game home series against his former team, the Reds. What better time to make a stand?

At least they didn't lose ground Friday. While the Dodgers were beating Colorado 7-2, Arizona countered with a 3-2 win over Cincinnati. Webb threw eight masterful innings to win his 20th game, and Dunn contributed a late bases-loaded walk for a team that's finding it a huge ordeal to score runs.

Holding serve won't get it done at this time of year, but as the Diamondbacks know from their recent California trip, it beats the alternative.

Dunn, 28, came to Arizona from the Reds on Aug. 11 in a trade for pitchers Dallas Buck and Micah Owings and catcher Wilkin Castillo. The Diamondbacks, desperate for offense after second baseman Orlando Hudson and outfielder Eric Byrnes went down with injuries and several young players experienced growing pains, needed to do something to counter the Dodgers' acquisition of Manny Ramirez in July.

So far, so-so for Arizona. Although Ramirez is the biggest thing to hit L.A. since Botox, Dunn's time in the desert has been a mixed bag.

The good news: Dunn has a .452 on-base percentage as a Diamondback, and he's averaging a whopping 4.45 pitches per plate appearance. His biggest moment so far in an Arizona uniform came a week ago Wednesday when his game-ending double beat St. Louis 4-3. But the Diamondbacks proceeded to hit the road and drop six straight in California.

Now the negative: Dunn has only four homers in 89 at-bats as a Diamondback after hitting 32 in 373 at-bats with Cincinnati. Although he has put a slight dent in his strikeout total -- the bane of his existence -- he's right at home in one of baseball's most whiff-happy lineups. The Diamondbacks rank second in the NL in strikeouts, and they've scored a league-low 64 runs while posting a 5-14 record in their past 19 games.

Dunn, befitting his "Big Donkey" nickname, is one of the least assuming, most approachable players you'll find, with his dry sense of humor and a terminal case of bed head. Some people think he has a Volkswagen's engine in a Hummer's body. When Dunn was in Cincinnati, broadcaster Marty Brennaman criticized him for subpar conditioning and a penchant for walking to and from his position. And of course, Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi landed in the soup when he described Dunn as a guy who lacks passion and "really doesn't like baseball that much."

The Diamondbacks, obviously, take a more charitable view. Yes, Dunn is easygoing, but it's not as if he's missing the action because he's in the dugout dreaming about fishing. Dunn has alerted outfielder Conor Jackson and other teammates when opposing pitchers are tipping their pitches, and he's passed along other tidbits he's picked up during games.

"That whole thing with the general manager in Toronto was ludicrous," Jackson said. "From what I've seen in the few weeks Adam's been here, he's an intense guy. He wants to win."

The best way to start an argument over Dunn is to pit the statistical and scouting communities against each other. Statistical bloggers revere him for his on-base ability and power, but the purists wonder whether he could squeeze more from his game by shortening up and making more consistent contact. Sure, an out is an out is an out, but even Dunn realizes that it might benefit him to put a few more balls in play.

"I'm more frustrated than anybody who thinks they're frustrated about me," he said. "I do some things that I just don't understand. How could I possibly strike out that many times? I really don't know.

"Some people have told me, 'Why don't you swing at the first pitch? To me, I'm not doing the team justice if I do that. In certain situations, yeah, I'll swing at the first pitch. But the goal is usually to get the starting pitcher out of there and get into the bullpen. That's what I try to do -- work the count, and when I get a good pitch to hit, don't miss it."

Up close and personal, Dunn's approach seems more refined than the numbers suggest. Even though he'll swing and miss in abundance, Arizona manager Bob Melvin points out that Dunn doesn't take the same awkward, off-balance hacks that many sluggers are prone to take. He's calm in the batter's box and -- his 1,238 career strikeouts notwithstanding -- appears to have the situation under control even when he's behind in the count.

"I was talking with [first baseman] Tony Clark about it on the bench and I said, 'This is the only guy I've ever seen keyholing the pitcher when he has an 0-2 count,"' Arizona catcher Chris Snyder said. "There's no panic. Everything is so quiet. He doesn't even flinch at the nastiest pitch any guy could throw. He just takes it for a ball."

Or a strike. Dunn ranks first in the majors in walks, second in homers and seventh in whiffs, which qualifies him as a "three true outcomes" monster. But it's not necessarily by choice. When Dunn's Arizona teammates watched him launch several balls into the clouds during an August batting practice session in Colorado, they assumed there was plenty more to come. They've since discovered, to their surprise, that Dunn prefers to hit line drives and use the entire field in batting practice at the expense of putting on a show.

"It's like Ryan Howard," Snyder said. "You'd think he takes an impressive BP, but he just works on a short, nice swing, hitting line drives up the middle."

Dunn is making $13 million this year, and if he's going to earn that kind of money in his next contract, the consensus is that it will be with an American League club. Sports Illustrated recently polled 449 major leaguers on the question, "Who is the worst fielder in baseball?" and Manny Ramirez led the way with 16 percent. Dunn and Jason Giambi finished tied for second with 9 percent of the vote. They're all free agents (along with Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu), so it's clear that bats will be more abundant than gloves this offseason.

Dunn hasn't given much thought to his preference of American League versus National League, left field versus first base versus DH, or his native Texas versus the rest of the country. But a month in Arizona has made him greedy in one respect: He realizes that contending for a postseason spot is a heck of a lot more fun than the alternative.

"I know what I want now," Dunn said. "I want to be playing for something in September every single year the rest of my career."

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.