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2021 Dodgers in review: Dustin May

A promising season cut short by Tommy John surgery

San Diego Padres v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Dustin May built on the promise of his strong rookie season with a breakout start to 2021, only to see his ascension cut short by a torn ligament in his elbow that required Tommy John surgery.

After a variety of roles in 2020 — surprise opening day starter, sticking in the rotation for the 60-game season, used in short bursts in the postseason — May battled for a starting spot during spring training this year. A strong Cactus League earned the 23-year-old the fifth starter job over Tony Gonsolin to open the season.

May’s April featured a pair of gems — six scoreless innings in Oakland in his first start, then 10 strikeouts in six strong innings on April 25 against the Padres, well before their collapse from contention, back when San Diego was actually good.

Among all pitchers with at least 20 innings in April, May’s strikeout rate (37.2 percent) ranked eighth in the majors, and his strikeout-minus-walk rate (31.4 percent) was seventh-best. It was a stellar month, with a 2.53 ERA and 2.84 FIP in four starts, an integral part of a Dodgers rotation that carried the team for the first three months of the season.

But then on the first day of the month that bears his name, May walked off the mound in the second inning of a start in Milwaukee.

“He said he felt a shooting sensation through his arm on one of those curveballs in the beginning of the at-bat,” manager Dave Roberts said after the game.

Within a few days, test results confirmed what was feared, that May tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He had Tommy John surgery on May 11 in Los Angeles.

The Dodgers didn’t fill May’s innings with another starter. Off days helped some maneuvering, but when needed, the fifth starter role was filled with bullpen games for five weeks until Gonsolin returned from his own injured-list stint. It was a harbinger of things to come for the Dodgers starting in July and even into the playoffs, when more starters needed to be replaced.

Exactly six months after walking off the mound in Milwaukee, on November 1, May threw for the first time since surgery, sharing video of himself at Camelback Ranch in Arizona.

“Today I got to throw a baseball again for the first time,” May said. “Long road ahead but glad to get the first one out of the way! Can’t wait to be back.”

The comeback has begun.

2021 particulars

Age: 23

Stats: 2.74 ERA, 3.30 FIP, 23 IP, 35 K, 6 BB, 0.6 bWAR, 0.5 fWAR

Salary: $590,500

Game of the year

On Oscar night in Los Angeles, just a few miles down the road, May was dominant on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball at Dodger Stadium. He allowed only one walk and two hits, with the only run coming on a Fernando Tatis Jr. home run. In six innings, May struck out a career-high 10.

May left with a 2-1 lead that was expanded to 7-1 thanks to a sixth-inning rally during which May was pinch-hit for by Sheldon Neuse, who homered. But much like this start was not a harbinger of a happy ending for May, that six-run Dodgers lead turned into an extra-inning loss. But it was still a great start.

Roster status

May has two years, 59 days of major league service time and, at least under the current system, would be eligible for salary arbitration after the 2022 season. But with the collective bargaining agreement expiring on December 1, that’s not a given.

Given the timing of May’s Tommy John surgery, a reasonable timeline for his return to the Dodgers seems to be after the All-Star break in some capacity.