Dustin May’s maturity on the mound is improving, though his curse is still being worked on

There’s the way Dustin May feels when he’s on the mound, and there’s the way the fiery Dodgers right-hander expresses himself from the outfield.

On the inside, May has been quietly pleased with his progress this spring, continuing to regain the strength and toughness he didn’t realize was missing last year during his initial return from Tommy John surgery, as well as a new level of mental toughness. go with him

“I’d say right now it’s probably the closest I’ve been pre-surgery, mind-wise,” May said. “I’m in a pretty good place.”

It’s just that, based on May’s often emotional behavior, it can sometimes be hard to tell.

In Sunday’s four scoreless innings against the Cincinnati Reds, for example, May attacked himself on several occasions: covering first base after a dropped ball; the tail extending out of the strike zone after a misfire on a pitch; He forced his way out of a jam after a second inning.

In the end, the frustration boiled over with a scream that echoed through the intimate setting of Goodyear Ballpark — and a four-letter curse word that echoed louder and louder from the mound to the stands to the press box.

“I mean, it’s always there,” May said later. “I’m always irritated with myself in some small situations. But I approach it this way. I’m very motivated and when I’m on the mound I have a lot of energy.”

Then he added with a sly smile, “Sometimes the crowd is a little louder, so you don’t hear it.”

While the starting routine may seem manic, especially from a pitcher who hasn’t always channeled his emotions in the most efficient way, May believes his outings are serving a more methodical purpose now.

“When you go out there and expect to throw 100 pitches a night, you have to harness those emotions and not let a bad thing get worse. So he’s done a good job of controlling the damage, managing that.”

– Dave Roberts, by Dustin May

“I’m telling myself, ‘Stop sucking,'” May explained. “That’s just my vocal way of saying it.”

And if it helps the 25-year-old flamethrower get back to where he was before the surgery, his career seemed destined for rising stardom, the Dodgers will take him. The teasing was, well, damned.

“I don’t expect him to be Evan Phillips,” manager Dave Roberts said of May, contrasting his young player with the club’s stoic veteran. “Obviously, there’s natural competition and adrenaline there with Dustin. He expects a lot from himself.”

“But,” added Roberts, “when you’re hoping to hit 100 fours a night, you’ve got to harness those emotions and not let a bad thing get worse. So he’s done a good job of doing damage control, managing that. His growth has been fantastic.”

Even in the early stages of that career-long maturation process, May quickly emerged as one of the best youngsters in the major leagues when he debuted in 2019.

With a near triple-digit fastball and nasty late life on his two-seamer and breaking pitches, May posted a 2.62 ERA in 2020 and 2021 with 79 strikeouts (in 79 innings) in 17 starts.

In the 2020 season, he made significant contributions to the Dodgers’ World Series run. In 2021, he pitched at the top of the rotation for just one month.

It looked like a star was being born, that the Dodgers’ next great young ace had arrived.

But then the elbow blew out during his May 1, 2021 start in Milwaukee, prompting a lengthy rehab stint that is more grueling than May ever expected.

Dustin May’s outings on the mound are sometimes like his hair, fiery red.

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

“It was a last one,” he said. “It was 15 months every day, doing things.”

In retrospect, it might even make some of the pitcher’s final steps easier.

Rob Hill, the Dodgers’ minor league pitching director, oversaw much of May’s recovery at the team’s Camelback Ranch facility in Arizona and quickly picked up on the pitcher’s trademark intensity.

“The coolest thing about Dustin was that he never showed, or we never saw, any kind of mental turmoil,” Hill said. “There was never a day where he showed up and it was like, ‘Ah, he’s going to be (expletive) today. He’s not ready to shoot.’ He was ready every day.”

The edge, Hill said, was everywhere. Throw in regular exercise. In the days of working in the gym, May came despite being scheduled to rest. As well as spirited club ping pong games against rehab pitcher Jimmy Nelson and fellow coaches and trainers.

“It was definitely a massacre in the major league clubhouse,” Hill joked. “Broken shovels, chairs, all kinds of things.”

When May returned to the big leagues at the end of last season, that mental recalibration—not letting go of his competitive fire but channeling it in a more positive way—continued.

Battling what he believes was a lingering hangover from his extended rehab, the pitcher was consistent in six starts in the stretch.

On some nights, he flashed his old self, whether it was a five-inning debut against the Miami Marlins in August or a five-inning no-hitter against the San Francisco Giants in September.

But in other outings, poor command and sloppy defense thwarted him again, overreactions by Reds pitchers and, unsurprisingly, more curse-filled screams.

“I think it’s part of the growth,” Roberts said last year, when May posted a 2-3 record and a 4.50 ERA. “He’s an emotional guy, and when you’re young, you’re emotional, you don’t have a lot of experience, but you have a lot of talent – (you have to learn) more is not always better.”

In his exit interviews, Clayton Kershaw helped his young teammate and Texas native realize it, too.

“Getting the Texas guys together and talking, his mound presence, his maturity just helped,” assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness said. “For example, if you make a mistake, the player doesn’t need to know. You don’t have to show him.’

By this camp, everything is starting to come together.

May’s three Cactus League starts have been largely clean, with the pitcher allowing one earned run in 8 2/3 innings while striking out 13.

More importantly, he has shown the physical sharpness that was missing last season.

“I wouldn’t say I was tired or anything, but I was going through almost the entire shooting season (in rehab),” May said. “So to have the rest of the offseason and come healthy this year is great for me.”

And if he can pair it with a more refined mentality, it could be a good thing for the Dodgers as well.

Ultimately, it’s May’s confidence and body language that matters to the team, not his occasional profane choice of words on the mound.

“Even when he was getting tight,” Roberts said of May’s latest giant on Sunday, “there was a little bit of frustration. But he bounced back. He’s just been able to control his emotions a lot better.”

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