'He's a game-changer': Dustin May's return shows what he could mean to Dodgers in October (2024)

LOS ANGELES — There’s stitched lettering on Dustin May’s glove. It’s a subtle nod to a fitting moniker, one that the right-hander developed as his body sprouted into his 6-foot-6 frame and started throwing what his former minor-league pitching coach called “100 mile an hour bowling balls” for a living.

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“Code Red,” it reads.

That had remained dormant within May for 15 months before Saturday, his official return to the Dodgers after Tommy John surgery. The familiar scar along his right elbow resembles that of a baseball seam, the likes of which he grips, fires and spins as well as anyone in the big leagues.

He is not the Dodgers’ savior, manager Dave Roberts assured him as he neared a return this week. But he might be a fortune shifter for the Dodgers come October.

“As a pure talent,” Roberts said, “he’s a game-changer.

“(But) I just don’t want to be the one to put any undue expectations on him solely on talent. So he’s got to go out there and pitch well.”

The Dodgers’ wild card strolled into the home dugout at 3 p.m. in a cowboy hat and boots without a word. Three hours later, he was finishing off his final warmup tosses in the bullpen for his first big-league start in more than 15 months. As he returned to the dugout, he peeled off a sleeve on his right elbow, baring the scar of the injury that derailed his ascendant season last spring. His curly red mop could hardly be contained in his cap as he bounced his way back onto the Dodger Stadium mound to the roar of Rage Against the Machine blasting through the ballpark’s maxed-out speakers.

As he prepared to begin his night, he stepped back off the mound and took a deep breath. His first pitch hummed at 98 mph, a sinker at the bottom of the zone, with each ensuing throw exploding from May’s right hand.

That surgically repaired right arm flashed the kind of electric stuff that makes his presence so tantalizing when visualizing October. That sinker touched triple digits. His four-seamer carried to the upper parts of the zone. His slider regularly spun at a higher rate than even the highest spin offerings in the sport.

Dustin May's first strikeout came on a slider that spun at 3,457 rpm.

For comparison, the highest average spin rate on sliders this year belongs to Oakland's Sam Moll, at 3,171 rpm – a whole 286 rpm from the neighborhood May's been at this first inning.

— Fabian Ardaya (@FabianArdaya) August 21, 2022

“It’s overpowering,” Roberts said.

In the Dodgers’ 7-0 win over the Marlins, he demonstrated the type of pitching that can swing the World Series odds in Los Angeles’ favor.

“The ball’s coming in really hot,” catcher Austin Barnes said. “It’s moving, going this way and then he’s got some stuff going that way. He’s got a good four-seam that can rise at the top, too. By the time he throws that breaking ball at you, it’s hard to adjust to all those speeds and all those movements.

“That kind of pitcher, the sky’s kind of the limit for him.”

May’s 26-pitch first inning demonstrated the difficulty of harnessing such an arsenal. After a leadoff chopped single and a pair of strikeouts, May issued a pair of four-pitch walks to load the bases, backing himself into a corner. He peered out, face tucked behind his glove and whipped his frame toward the plate. When his two-strike slider dove under Nick Fortes’ bat and into the dirt, May let out a roar, spinning as he redirected his body toward the dugout as he got out of the jam.

“It’s super exciting to know that I’m back and know that I can go get guys out when I need to,” May said, “and it was super, super exciting for me to know that I can get out of a jam when I put myself into one.”

It marked the only time all night he’d break a sweat. He struck out nine, quickly and efficiently mowing down each of the final 13 batters he faced while missing plenty of bats in the process. May wouldn’t allow another hit after Joey Wendle’s single led off the ballgame; just two balls hit off him left the bat at more than 90 mph. He made a Marlins lineup already bereft of thump look helpless.

“I just decided to throw strikes instead of balls,” he said with a smirk.

For five innings, May twirled, screamed and prowled his way around the mound, flashing some of the supreme presence that only gets enhanced by the embers he was throwing. “That’s his kind of energy,” Roberts said. And as he stormed off the mound after the fifth inning, he went back up the tunnel so far that pitching coach Mark Prior had to come retrieve him to tell him his night was finished.

“I think people look at him out on the mound and they think, ‘This guy is a psycho,'” Dodgers assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness told The Athletic earlier this month. “But his ability to hone in like that, you don’t see that very often with a kid as young as he is.”

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Roberts called May’s injury 15 months ago, just as the right-hander was fully realizing the swing-and-miss to accompany his brilliant stuff, “a gut punch.” He’d started to pile up the strikeouts, showing the ace-like results that accompanied the expectations and flashing the ability that could earn him Game 1 starts in the postseason. Instead, he ducked into the darkness of an arduous rehab from Tommy John surgery.

Roberts cautioned against the expectation that May would return to that level without a hitch, that the May the Dodgers are getting over the final month and a half of the regular season is the same one who could one day challenge for a Cy Young award. The Dodgers don’t need May to do everything in October; with each start, surprise All-Stars Tony Gonsolin and Tyler Anderson show why they’ve entered into the Dodgers’ postseason plans alongside Julio Urías and Clayton Kershaw.

But Saturday was a reminder of why that outside expectation feels possible.

“This is a very confident young man who doesn’t run from it,” Roberts said of May. “I think that having a person believe in what he can do, and surpass any expectation that we might have for him, I think that gives us all confidence.”

That confidence, and stuff, was on full display. It was Code Red at full tilt for a five-inning burst, a taste of what the Dodgers could harness over a matter of a few innings this postseason.

“He’s a special kind of pitcher,” Barnes said.

(Photo: Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)

'He's a game-changer': Dustin May's return shows what he could mean to Dodgers in October (1)'He's a game-changer': Dustin May's return shows what he could mean to Dodgers in October (2)

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

'He's a game-changer': Dustin May's return shows what he could mean to Dodgers in October (2024)

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