Dustin May had no problem getting the first two strikes against Arizona Diamondbacks hitters Wednesday night.
Putting them away, however, became a nightmarish adventure for the Dodgers right-hander still trying to rediscover his way in a return from Tommy John surgery.
In a 6-1 loss at Dodger Stadium, May followed up his best start of the season with one of his worst, giving up five runs over four shaky innings in which he also walked two batters, hit one and had seven men reach base from a two-strike count.
“I set myself up for failure, walking guys and giving up contact,” May said. “It was just overall bad.”
Before Wednesday, it appeared May was moving closer to a starting spot in the Dodgers’ playoff rotation, thanks to an uptick in performance, including five no-hit innings against the San Francisco Giants last week, and because starting games could be easier on his surgically repaired elbow.
“Being a young pitcher, [coming off] Tommy John, first year back, to kind of give him as much opportunity to have success preparation-wise, routine-wise, obviously that makes the most sense,” manager Dave Roberts said pregame. “Is it cemented? I’d probably stop short of that. But that’s most plausible.”
To be counted on in the playoffs, however, the 25-year-old will have to avoid outings like Wednesday’s.
In the first inning, May had leadoff hitter Daulton Varsho in a 2-and-2 count before walking him on a low curveball and high sinker.
With two outs, and Varsho at second after a stolen base, May had Christian Walker in a 1-and-2 hole, only to throw a wide fastball and a low curve that left the count full. He then threw an elevated sinker Walker dumped into left for a broken-bat RBI single.
A similar sequence played out in the third inning. Jake McCarthy was in a 1-and-2 count with two outs, but then laid off a couple of curveballs and a cutter to draw a walk. Moments later, he stole second, then scored on an RBI single by Walker.
In the fourth inning, May’s night snowballed out of control.
After Carson Kelly doubled, Geraldo Perdomo singled on an 0-and-2 fastball and Varsho was hit by an 0-and-2 curveball to load the bases.
May tried to start the next batter, Corbin Carroll, with an elevated cutter but missed his spot low and over the plate. Carroll smoked it, sending a double into the gap that scored three runs to make it 5-0 before the Dodgers had even recorded a hit (they finished with only three, getting a lone run on Mookie Betts’ 35th home run).
“It’s just one of those games,” Roberts said. “Clean game. We just got beat.”
Unlike some of May’s other blunders since returning to the active roster, his problems Wednesday were less about command and more about conviction, with Roberts citing possible problems with pitch selection and plan of attack.
“With Dustin, it’s not just about stuff,” Roberts said, noting that, even on a night May’s near triple-digit velocity was good, his tendency of “trying to bully guys” with his fastball “gets to be too predictable.”
“Just to continue to understand how to use his mix the right way, I think will prove beneficial,” Roberts added. “Obviously, time is of the essence. There’s only a couple more starts to clean that stuff up. But that’s on all of us to do.”
Indeed, the clock is ticking for May to get right.
He has flashed dominance at times this season but remains inconsistent now six starts into his return.
He insisted he physically feels fine and is “at the point now where I feel comfortable with everything,” he said. “I just need to go out and execute.”
For the Dodgers to count on him in the playoffs, do they need to see more consistency over the final couple of weeks?
“Absolutely,” Roberts said.
Every day, Roberts fields a familiar round of questions during his pregame scrum, pressed on the status of the team’s roughly half a dozen injured pitchers.
And every day, with the playoffs inching ever closer, his updates are liable to change, delivering unexpectedly good news for some, and increasingly troubling development for others.
Wednesday was no different.
After saying for several days that right-hander Blake Treinen would be activated Thursday, Roberts had to backtrack, revealing that the reliever’s balky shoulder is “just not bouncing back the way any of us would have hoped” and that his status for October remains uncertain.
“He played catch today and we’ll see how he comes out of that,” Roberts said. “We’ll just kind of kick the can a little bit.”
There was good news mixed into Roberts’ afternoon chat with reporters. He said right-hander Brusdar Graterol would be activated Thursday instead, giving the reliever an earlier-than-anticipated return from an elbow issue that had kept him sidelined since the start of September.
The Dodgers are hopeful Tony Gonsolin (forearm) and Dave Price (wrist) are getting closer to returns as well. They will both face hitters Thursday in what will be an especially key step for Gonsolin, who is running out of time to try to return in a full starter’s capacity.
“I’ve already talked to Tony about, No. 1, getting him back pitching,” Roberts said. “And once we get to that point, then we’ll decide what role makes the most sense. So he’s open to whatever.”
Roberts said if Thursday goes well for Gonsolin, he could begin a rehab assignment as soon as next week.
Still, Treinen’s latest setback was the most concerning piece of news to emerge, with Roberts saying that the right-hander — who was originally expected to be one of the Dodgers’ most important relievers before suffering a shoulder injury in mid-April that has limited him to only five appearances all season — is still not a guarantee to be ready for October.
“I would say there’s still an ‘if,’ ” Roberts said.