by Rowan Kavner
Promising young right-hander Dustin May had already developed a history of answering the challenges thrown his way before his notable leap forward in 2021.
When he was called upon for a surprise start to begin the 2020 season, becoming the first Dodger rookie since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 to start on Opening Day, he responded by allowing one run in a Dodger win. From there, he continued to handle dynamic roles as a starter and reliever both in the regular season — where he allowed two earned runs or fewer in all 12 of his appearances — and in the postseason, depending on what was needed. In his final outing of the 2020 season, he helped preserve Clayton Kershaw’s World Series Game 5 lead with 1 2/3 scoreless innings of relief work.
The 23-year-old knew expanding his arsenal and increasing his strikeout rate were paramount in his development as a Major League starter. The Dodgers trusted he would take that next step, giving him the final rotation spot to start the 2021 season among a number of capable options. May ran with the opportunity, incorporating more of his developing breaking ball and watching his strikeout rate double from 19.6 percent in 2020 to 37.6 percent in 2021.
He was coming off a career-best 10-strikeout effort when he took the mound last Saturday, looking primed to continue the work of his first five starts. He struck out three of the first four batters he faced. The flamethrower’s four-seam fastball lived in the high-90s. Nothing seemed wrong.
“I think if there was a warning sign, then we would’ve pivoted,” said manager Dave Roberts. “He threw the baseball well. His side work was really good. … Sometimes, things happen.”
May called for the trainers after a 94 mph fastball missed off the outside corner. In clear pain, his night was done. The damage was revealed Monday, and now the latest and most devastating challenge is ahead for May, who will need right elbow UCL reconstruction surgery that will take him out for the year.
“You never want to lose anyone for the season, certainly a player like Dustin who was taking the ball every fifth day and logging valuable innings,” Roberts said. “I feel for him, most important, but for our ballclub it’s a big blow. But we’ve got a lot of talented players, and we’ve got to find a way to fill that void.”
Roberts said despite’s May obvious disappointment he was handling the news “like a pro.” Beyond losing May as a pitcher this year, Roberts lamented a year of May’s development being taken away.
When May was first called up in 2019, he relied primarily on a high-velocity, highlight-reel sinker and a cutter that finished off the majority of his strikeouts. His curveball started to become more of a weapon last year, getting more strikeouts than either of the other two pitches. It turned into a lethal part of his mix in 2021, so much so that opponents were 0-for-23 with 16 strikeouts against the pitch to start the year.
“What Dustin has done is he’s just matured more as a Major League ballplayer,” Roberts said. “His work in between starts has been way more focused, way more consistent. There’s a routine in there, and he’s been pitching really well. To not be able to build on that is very unfortunate.”
May was 1–1 with a 2.74 ERA and 0.96 WHIP when his season was cut short. He was averaging 13.7 strikeouts per nine innings — the most on the Dodgers and sixth-most in the Majors among pitchers who have thrown at least 20 innings.
He played a significant role in a Dodger rotation with the best WHIP (0.89) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (7.14) in the game.
“And he was getting better every time he took the mound,” said Justin Turner. “That’s a significant loss for us. It’s a significant arm we’ve relied on and were planning on relying on. Just feel terrible for Dustin, and obviously it’s not something anyone wants to go through or experience. Just wishing him a speedy recovery, and hopefully he can stay mentally strong and get through this and talk to a lot of guys who have experienced it and come out of it better and stronger.”
The surgery will be performed Tuesday, May 11, in Los Angeles by Dr. Neal El Attrache. The Dodgers, who are already dealing with a number of injuries to the pitching staff, are still figuring out how the rotation will look with May no longer a part of it. There is no obvious immediate replacement to the fifth starter spot.
With Monday’s game in Chicago rained out, Clayton Kershaw will start the first game and Trevor Bauer will start the second game of a split doubleheader on Tuesday. Walker Buehler will follow on Wednesday.
Tony Gonsolin continues to build up as a starter in his rehab from a shoulder injury and could be ready to contribute in a few weeks. Until then, bullpen games are a possibility. The Dodgers also get three off days in the next two weeks to help provide rest for their starters.
Bauer has talked in the past about his willingness to start every four days, and Roberts said there’s a scenario where that could happen as well.
“Every year there’s always obstacles, injuries,” Roberts said. “We’ve seen it. You feel for the players that you’re missing, but as a team you still have to move forward. It’s not to be insensitive to the guys that go down and miss time, but it’s kind of the mindset we have to have to continue to move forward and win baseball games. Our guys are well-versed. We don’t make excuses. No one’s going to feel sorry for us.”