Dustin May excels in return from Tommy John surgery; Dodgers roll

Tommy John surgery is so common, with hundreds of pitchers from high school to the big leagues undergoing the elbow ligament replacement procedure every year, and its success rate (80% to 90%) so high that it almost seems routine.

It is anything but, the grueling 16-month rehabilitation process, with its endless hours of strength and range-of-motion exercises, the painful breaking up of scar tissue and the months-long throwing progression accompanied by an equally challenging mental component.

“The doctors have done a great job with the surgery, and guys are coming back and performing, but as a player, you feel isolated and ostracized, like you’re not a part of the team,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said.

“I think we do as good a job as anybody trying to keep guys feeling valued and relevant, getting them in town with us when we can, but it’s a tough road mentally.”

Dustin May reached the end of that rehab road — and the beginning of what the Dodgers hope is a pothole-free path to the postseason — on Saturday night when the hard-throwing right-hander returned from Tommy John surgery to make his first big league start in 15½ months.

An encouraging first step it was, May surviving a rocky 26-pitch first inning to blank the Miami Marlins on one hit and strike out nine in five shutout innings of a 7-0 victory in front of 51,813 at Dodger Stadium.

Will Smith hit a three-run homer in the first inning and Justin Turner added a three-run shot in the third to provide a huge early cushion for May, who retired the final 13 batters he faced to help the Dodgers improve their major league-best record to 83-36, including a 38-8 mark since June 29.

Dodgers starting pitcher Dustin May delivers during the first inning Aug. 20, 2022.

Dodgers starter Dustin May gave up just one hit in five innings and retired the final 13 batters he faced.

(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

Roberts said he expected May to take the mound with “some extra adrenaline and emotion,” and that was evident when May gave up a leadoff single to Joey Wendle and, after two strikeouts, walked JJ Bleday and Brian Anderson on four pitches each to load the bases.

But May struck out Nick Fortes with a nasty, 86-mph slider in the dirt to end the inning, punctuating the whiff with a spin and a scream, and off he went, retiring the side in order in each of the next four innings on only 45 pitches.

“I don’t think we could have hoped for anything more from Dustin tonight,” Roberts said. “Obviously that first inning, I think we all saw emotions and just kind of losing command a little bit there.

“But to show his resolve to bear down, make pitches to get out of that inning, and then after that, it just felt like he just continued to get better as the start went on.”

May’s stuff looked as crisp as it did before the surgery, his two-seam sinking fastball averaging 97.4 mph and topping out at 98.8 mph, his four-seamer averaging 98.2 mph and topping out at 99.2 mph, and his tight-spinning sliders breaking sharply at an average of 85.6 mph.

The Dodgers' Will Smith (16) is congratulated by teammate Trea Turner after Smith hit a three-run homer Aug. 20, 2022.

The Dodgers’ Will Smith (16) is congratulated by teammate Trea Turner after Smith hit a three-run homer in the first inning.

(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

He struck out the side — Bleday on an 87-mph changeup, Anderson on a 97-mph sinker and Fortes on an 85-mph slider — in the fourth. Among his 71 pitches, 13 were swinging strikes and 16 were called strikes.

“It’s super exciting to know that I’m back and that I can go get guys out when I need to and that I can get out of a jam when I put myself into one,” May said. “That was a huge confidence boost. … I’m just glad to get the first one out of the way and to know I came out of it healthy and strong, and now I can get ready for the next one.”

May made five rehab starts for triple-A Oklahoma City, but Saturday marked his first big league appearance since May 1, 2021, when he winced in pain after feeling a shooting sensation down his arm on his 27th pitch of a game at Milwaukee’s American Family Field.

May underwent surgery two weeks later. He said his recovery process was “very smooth” and that he didn’t baby his arm once he returned to game action in July.

That was apparent Saturday night, as he overwhelmed a weak-hitting Marlins team, bouncing around the mound and brimming with confidence the way he did before elbow surgery.

“That’s his kind of energy,” Roberts said. “We just want him to be himself, and he’s an emotional guy. He probably does things that I don’t think he realizes, but a lot of it is just that kind of adrenaline that he has. That’s how he exudes it.

“I think we all felt a joy in the sense of, he’s kind of weathered that long road back. To see him back on a major league mound, I know his family was here, and they’re all excited.”

The Dodgers' Justin Turner hits a three-run homer in the third inning Aug. 20, 2022. Marlins catcher Nick Fortes is at left.

Justin Turner connects on a three-run home run during the third inning for the Dodgers. Marlins catcher Nick Fortes is at left.

(Alex Gallardo / Associated Press)

May’s counterpart, Bryan Hoeing, who made his big league debut in place of injured Braxton Garrett, had a much rougher night against baseball’s most prolific lineup.

One-out singles by Trea Turner and Freddie Freeman and Smith’s three-run homer into the left-field bullpen gave the Dodgers a 3-0 lead in the first.

Freeman followed singles by Mookie Betts and Trea Turner with an RBI single in the third for a 4-0 lead. Two batters later, Justin Turner crushed a towering, three-run homer to left to make it 7-0.

“This is a tough debut for any young pitcher,” Roberts said of Hoeing. “To come here, sold-out stadium, and you look at this lineup … he sort of got ambushed.”

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