There is the way Dustin May feels when he’s on the mound, and there is the way the fiery Dodgers right-hander outwardly expresses it.
On the inside, May has been quietly pleased with his progress this spring, continuing to regain strength and stamina he didn’t realize he was missing last year in his initial return from Tommy John surgery — as well as a newfound level of mental fortitude to go along with it.
“I would say right now is probably the closest I’ve been to pre-surgery, feel-wise,” May said. “I’m in a pretty good spot.”
It’s just that, based on May’s often-emotional in-game demeanor, it sometimes can be hard to tell.
During four scoreless innings against the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday, for example, May snapped at himself on several occasions: after dropping a ball while covering first base; after misfiring on a pitch that tailed wide of the strike zone; after a second-inning walk that forced him to escape a jam.
In the final instance, the frustration crescendoed with a scream — and four-letter curse word — that echoed around the intimate setting at Goodyear Ballpark, reverberating from the mound to the stands to the press box loud and clear.
“I mean, it’s always there,” May said afterward. “I’m always irritated with myself in some small situations. But that’s just how I pitch. I’m very animated and I’m very energized when I’m on the mound.”
Then, he added with a sly grin: “Just sometimes, the crowd is a little louder, so you don’t hear it.”
While it might appear to be a maniacal midstart routine, especially from a pitcher who hasn’t always channeled his emotions the most effective way, May believes his outbursts are serving a more methodical purpose now.
“When you’re expected to go out there and throw 100 pitches a night, you gotta be able to harness those emotions and not let one bad thing get worse. So he’s done a good job of damage control, of managing that.”
— Dave Roberts, on Dustin May
“I’m just telling myself, ‘Quit sucking,’ ” May explained. “That’s just my vocalized way of saying it.”
And if it helps the flame-throwing 25-year-old get back to where he used to be, when his burgeoning career seemed destined for stardom before his surgery, then the Dodgers will take it. Profanities be, well, damned.
“I’m not expecting him to be Evan Phillips out there,” manager Dave Roberts said of May, contrasting his young starter with the club’s stoic veteran reliever. “Obviously, there’s a natural compete and adrenaline in there with Dustin. He expects a lot from himself.”
“But,” Roberts added, “when you’re expected to go out there and throw 100 pitches a night, you gotta be able to harness those emotions and not let one bad thing get worse. So he’s done a good job of damage control, of 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 young starters in the major leagues upon his debut in 2019.
With a near triple-digit fastball and wicked late life on his two-seamer and breaking pitches, May posted a 2.62 ERA with 79 strikeouts (in 79 innings) in 17 starts across 2020 and 2021.
In the 2020 season, he pitched important innings in the Dodgers’ World Series run. In 2021, he became entrenched near the top of their rotation after just one month.
It appeared a star was being born, that the next great young Dodgers ace had arrived.
But then his elbow blew out during a start May 1, 2021, in Milwaukee, leading to a lengthy rehabilitation stint more grueling than May ever expected.
“It was a grind,” he said. “It was 15 months of every single day, doing stuff.”
In hindsight, it might have also facilitated some of the pitcher’s recent strides.
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 with Dustin was, he never showed, or we never saw, any sort of mental wavering whatsoever,” Hill said. “There was never a day where he showed up and it was like, ‘Ah, today is gonna be a [expletive] day. He’s not ready to roll.’ He was ready every single day.”
The edge, Hill said, was present everywhere. In mundane throwing exercises. In gym work on days May came in despite being scheduled to be off. Even in spirited clubhouse pingpong games against fellow rehabilitating pitcher Jimmy Nelson and members of the coaching and training staff.
“There was definitely some carnage that had taken place in the major league clubhouse,” Hill said jokingly. “Broken paddles, chairs, all kinds of stuff.”
When May returned to the big leagues at the end of last season, that mental recalibration — of not abandoning his competitive fire but directing it in a more positive way — continued.
Battling what he now believes was a lingering hangover from his extended rehabilitation, the pitcher was inconsistent in six starts down the stretch.
Some nights, flashes of his old self appeared, like his scoreless five-inning debut in August against the Miami Marlins or his five no-hit innings against the San Francisco Giants in September.
But in other outings, poor command and spotty defense frustrated him all over again, prompting exaggerated reactions from the red-haired pitcher and, unsurprisingly, more curse-laden screams.
“I think that’s part of growth,” Roberts said last year, when May posted a 2-3 record and 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 dugout conversations between starts, Clayton Kershaw helped his young teammate, and fellow Texas native, realize it as well.
“The Texas boys getting together and talking, it just helped his mound presence, his maturity,” assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness said. “Like, if you make a mistake, the hitter doesn’t need to know. You don’t need to show him.”
To this point of camp, it has all started to come together.
May’s three Cactus League starts have largely been clean, with the pitcher giving up one earned run in 8 2/3 innings while striking out 13.
More important, he has felt a physical sharpness that was lacking last season.
“I wouldn’t say I was tired or anything, but I was almost going through a full season of throws [during rehabilitation],” May said. “So just being able to have the rest of the offseason and come into this year healthy is a really good thing for me.”
And if he can couple it with a more refined mentality, it could be a really good thing for the Dodgers too.
After all, it’s May’s confidence and body language the team cares about — not his occasionally profane choice of words on the mound.
“Even when he was getting squeezed,” Roberts said of May’s latest flare-ups Sunday, “there was some frustration. But he rebounded. He’s just been able to control his emotions a lot better.”