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Dustin May’s mound maturity is improving, even if his curse is a work in progress

There’s the way Dustin May feels when he’s on the mound, and the way the Dodgers’ fiery right-hander expresses it outwardly.

Inside, May has been quietly pleased with his progress this spring, continuing to regain the strength and stamina he didn’t know he was lacking last year in his initial return from Tommy John surgery, as well as a new level of strength. mind to get on with it.

“I would say right now it’s probably the closest I’ve gotten before the surgery, as far as feeling smart,” May said. “I’m in a pretty good place.”

It’s just that, based on May’s often emotional demeanor in the game, it can sometimes be hard to tell.

During four scoreless innings against the Cincinnati Reds On Sunday, for example, May bit himself several times: after dropping a ball while covering first base; after missing a pitch that he strayed out of the strike zone; after a second inning walk that forced him to escape a jam.

Ultimately, the frustration escalated with a yell, and a four-letter swear word, that echoed through the intimate surroundings of Goodyear Ballpark, reverberating from the mound to the stands and the press box loud and clear.

“I mean, it’s always there,” May said afterwards. “I am always irritated with myself in some small situations. But that’s how I pitch. I am very animated and have a lot of energy when I am on the mound.”

Then, she added with a mischievous smile, “Just sometimes, the crowd is a bit louder so you don’t hear it.”

While it may seem like a manic routine in the middle of the start, especially from a pitcher who hasn’t always channeled his emotions in the most effective way, May believes his outbursts serve a more methodical purpose now.

“When you’re expected to go out and throw 100 pitches a night, you have to be able to tap into those emotions and not let something bad get worse. So he’s done a good job of damage control, of handling that.”

—Dave Roberts, on Dustin May

“I just tell myself, ‘Stop sucking,’” May explained. “That’s just my vocalized way of saying it.”

And if he helps the 25-year-old flamethrower get back to where he used to be, when his burgeoning career seemed destined for stardom before his surgery, then the Dodgers will embrace him. Profanities be, well, damn.

“I don’t expect it to be Evan Phillips,” manager Dave Roberts said of May, comparing his young starter to the club’s stoic veteran reliever. “Obviously, there is a natural, adrenaline-pumping competition with Dustin. He expects a lot from himself ”.

“But,” added Roberts, “when you’re expected to go out and throw 100 pitches a night, you have to be able to tap into those emotions and not let something bad 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 maturing process throughout his career, May quickly emerged as one of the best young starters in the majors in his 2019 debut.

With a near triple-digit fastball and a poor late life on his two-seam and breaking pitches, May posted a 2.62 ERA with 79 strikeouts (in 79 innings) in 17 starts from 2020-21.

In the 2020 season, he pitched big innings in the Dodgers World Series. In 2021, he entrenched himself near the top of his rotation after just one month.

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

But then his elbow blew out during a May 1, 2021 start at Milwaukee, leading to a lengthy rehab period that was more grueling than May expected.

Dustin May’s outbursts on the mound are sometimes like his hair: fiery red.

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

“It was routine,” he said. “It was 15 months of every day, doing things.”

In hindsight, it might have made some of the launcher’s recent advances easier, too.

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

“The best thing with Dustin was that he never showed, or we never saw, any type of mental faltering at all,” Hill said. “There was never a day where he would show up and be like, ‘Ah, he today he’s going to be a (expletive) day. It’s not ready to roll. I was ready every day.”

The edge, Hill said, was everywhere. In mundane throwing exercises. At the gym work on the days he arrived in May even though he was scheduled to be free. He even engaged in spirited games of ping pong in the clubhouse against fellow rehabbing pitcher Jimmy Nelson and members of the coaching and coaching staff.

“There was definitely carnage in the Major League clubhouse,” Hill said jokingly. “Broken oars, chairs, all sorts of things.”

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

Battling what he now believes was a lingering hangover from his lengthy rehab, the pitcher was inconsistent in six starts down the stretch.

Some nights, flashes of his old self would appear, like his five scoreless inning debut in August against the Miami Marlins or his five hitless innings against the San Francisco Giants in September.

But in other outings, poor control and spotty defense frustrated him again, prompting overreactions from the red-headed pitcher and, unsurprisingly, more curse-laden yelling.

“I think that’s part of the growth,” Roberts said last year, when May posted a 2-3 record with 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 conversations on the bench between starts, Clayton Kershaw helped his young teammate and Texan native take notice, too.

“The guys from Texas got together and talked, it just helped his presence on the mound, his maturity,” assistant pitching coach Connor McGuiness said. “Like, if you make a mistake, the hitter doesn’t need to know about it. You don’t need to show it.

Up to this point in the camp, everything has started 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 and striking out 13.

More importantly, he has felt a physical acumen that he lacked last season.

“I wouldn’t say I was tired or anything, but I was almost going through a full season of pitching (during rehab),” May said. “So being able to have the rest of the offseason and start this year healthy is a really good thing for me.”

And if he can combine it with a more refined mentality, it could also be a very good thing for the Dodgers.

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

“Even when he was being pressured,” Roberts said of May’s latest outbursts on Sunday, “there was some frustration. But he recovered. He’s just been able to control his emotions so much better.”