F-bombs and fireballs: Dodgers' Dustin May hopes to take next step in his maturation (2024)

PHOENIX — Loud expletives rang through the spring ballpark last Sunday. If the Federal Communications Commission was watching the Dodgers broadcast, it is surely eager to collect that fine.

Dustin May feels as good as he has since before he needed Tommy John surgery to replace the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. That’s back when he appeared primed for a nuclear ascent promised by triple-digit velocity readings. He matured through his arduous rehab, gaining perspective and a further understanding of himself during his rocky comeback late last season.

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But the fire within that matches May’s shock of red hair? Well, that’s still going to come out every once in a while in the form of a few loud assessments of himself.

“It’s more of just like a … shoot, like, I don’t want to say it right now,” he explained sheepishly after his last spring start a week ago at Goodyear Ballpark. “But in the moment it’s like, ‘Gosh dang it.’ Like, I need to do it. I’m just telling myself, quit sucking in that moment.”

Which isn’t to say May’s loud alternatives for fudge or shoot or darn it are all that strange — after all, his list of career teammates includes the likes of Walker Buehler and Rich Hill, who weren’t exactly G-rated.

“Just sometimes, the crowd is a little louder,” May said, “so you don’t hear it.”

He will take those loud exceptions to the frustrations built up over a 15-month journey after he blew out his elbow in a half-empty ballpark in Milwaukee on May 1, 2021. His rehabilitation seemingly continued into the Dodgers’ postseason push last fall. The non-stop work, while necessary to restore the 25-year-old’s right arm into shape, was grating on the mind — “a grind,” May said.

That led to disappointing results upon his return to the Dodgers mound late last August. His fastball still hummed around 100 mph with sharp movement and his breaking ball swept and spun among the game’s best. May also boasted a circle changeup, a pitch he discovered during his downtime over the last few months when he fiddled with an option to neutralize left-handed hitters.

The pieces, it seemed, had come together before he got hurt during that outing in Milwaukee. The snapshot of that 2021 season — five brilliant, electric starts where he collected more swing-and-miss than he ever had — had people picturing a whole album of that now that he was healthy again.

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Instead, the frustrations boiled over while mired in inconsistency in 2022. He made six starts, posting a 4.50 ERA with 29 strikeouts and 14 walks over 30 innings. There were more snapshots, sure. But each was followed by a reflection of a pitcher who still wasn’t quite himself. His command waned, as did his focus when his starts began to spiral. May’s mechanics never locked back in after surgery, and as he hoped to push through his woes, a back issue shut him down for the final couple weeks of the regular season. He made the postseason roster but didn’t make a single appearance in the National League Division Series loss to the Padres months after the Dodgers pinned hopes on him being an October difference-maker.

“Obviously because of what he had done, people expected and we expected — he’d just drop back in and dominate,” pitching coach Mark Prior said. “It’s unfortunately not the case. … It’d be unfair to (expect it of) anybody, to be honest.”

The winter provided more than just the opportunity for the Dodgers to correct elements of May’s delivery that were considered secondary to getting him healthy. While May was working through some mechanical tweaks to his lower half, his mind was also getting a chance to breathe. The monotony of constant throwing and rehab hadn’t given him the opportunity to reflect, to grow. It wore on him.

“He was really just trying to kind of find himself again,” said assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness, whose rapport with May dates to their shared days in the organization’s minor-league system, when May emerged as a hard-throwing third-rounder.

Now, he’s working on figuring out who he is as a pitcher. Prior said May’s changeup can be a vital weapon against the division’s lefty-heavy lineups, such as the Diamondbacks and Giants. The mechanical tweaks have rectified some of the command concerns. Watchful days on the dugout rail have included conversations about how to get hitters out more effectively. Physically, May feels as good as he has in years.

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“I would say right now is probably the closest I’ve been to pre-surgery, feel-wise,” May said.

He’s also found a way to channel his energy, and use the occasional f-bomb for good.

“It used to kind of be a thing that it would challenge him to make sure he didn’t go off the rails or anything like that,” McGuiness said. “He’s now controlling the emotions to kind of use them for his own will, per see.”

May’s maturation comes at a critical point for the Dodgers. They again appear to have a formidable rotation, with Julio Urías coming off another career year. Clayton Kershaw is back and has continued to deliver inning-over-inning quality. The addition of Noah Syndergaard is expected to add stability to the back end of the rotation. But there are areas where May’s potential ascension could serve as a boon.

Tony Gonsolin will open the season on the injured list. He sprained his left ankle while walking off the field following a pitcher fielding drill. Much will be asked of a cadre of young starters that includes Ryan Pepiot, Michael Grove, Andre Jackson, Bobby Miller and Gavin Stone.

The swing point of it all could be May, bouncing on and around the mound with his bushel of red curls and another summer of expectation ahead. He appears more ready for the challenge this spring, poised to make a proclamation as loud as some of the things he’ll exclaim when coming off the pitching rubber.

“That’s part of his development as a major-league pitcher but also his development as we all went through as an adult,” Prior said. “You understand there’s a process to this whole thing and not everything has to be perfect all the time. Good is good enough sometimes, you know? When you have those moments of perfection, you step on the gas and go.”

(Top photo of Dustin May: Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

F-bombs and fireballs: Dodgers' Dustin May hopes to take next step in his maturation (2)F-bombs and fireballs: Dodgers' Dustin May hopes to take next step in his maturation (3)

Fabian Ardaya is a staff writer covering the Los Angeles Dodgers for The Athletic. He previously spent three seasons covering the crosstown Los Angeles Angels for The Athletic. He graduated from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in May 2017 after growing up in a Phoenix-area suburb. Follow Fabian on Twitter @FabianArdaya

F-bombs and fireballs: Dodgers' Dustin May hopes to take next step in his maturation (2024)

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