The path of a pitcher returning from Tommy John surgery is rarely straight and pointing north. It usually zigs and zags, lunges forward and lurches back, with encouraging stretches of dominance offset by shaky moments of self-doubt.
May’s stuff — primarily a four-seam fastball that topped out at 100.3 mph, a lively 97-mph sinker and a knee-buckling 86-mph curve — looked every bit as electric as it did in his first two strong starts back from his 2021 elbow ligament-replacement procedure.
But May lacked command, walking five and hitting two batters in five-plus innings, and he grooved a pair of sinkers that Manny Machado and Brandon Drury hit for two-run home runs in the third inning of an eventual 7-1 Padres victory before a crowd of 45,164 in Dodger Stadium.
“It’s just his third start with us, so to expect him to be lights out every time he takes the mound is unfair,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I think with Tommy John, the main thing is he continues to build up, stay strong, and the command should start to come.”
San Diego right-hander Yu Darvish gave up two hits in seven shutout innings, striking out nine and walking two, to improve to 12-7 with a 3.26 ERA to lead the Padres, who are battling for a wild-card spot, to their fourth straight win.
The Dodgers (90-41) have lost three straight games for the first time since June 10-12, when they were swept at San Francisco.
May walked Juan Soto and Machado with one out in the first but escaped the jam by getting Josh Bell to pop out to third and freezing Jake Cronenworth with an 86-mph, knee-high curve that he dotted on the outside corner for strike three.
May’s control problems hurt him in the third. After Soto took a 99.8-mph fastball inside for a one-out walk, Machado lined his 25th homer of the season into the left-field pavilion for a 2-0 San Diego lead.
Bell struck out, but Cronenworth was hit by a pitch, and Drury lined a full-count sinker into left-field seats for his 25th homer and a 4-0 lead. May retired the side in order in the fifth but was pulled after hitting Drury in the helmet with an 84-mph curve and walking Trent Grisham to open the sixth.
“With Dustin, the stuff is there, it’s velocity, and everything’s hard,” Roberts said. “But if you’re not commanding it, then guys can time velocity. There were some good breaking balls in there, but there was a lot of misfires with all of his pitches.”
Right-hander Heath Hembree struck out Ha-Seong Kim and Austin Nola and was one strike away from escaping the jam when he gave up a three-run homer to Jurickson Profar for a 7-0 Padres lead.
Two of the runs were charged to May, leaving the red-haired hurler with an unsightly final line: five innings, four hits, six earned runs, five walks, five strikeouts.
“Just bad all around, couldn’t throw strikes,” May said. “Everything feels healthy. Everything was normal. I just wasn’t over the plate.”
May, who fell to 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA in three starts, took little solace in the fact that he rebounded from his rough third inning to pitch into the sixth.
“Yeah, I went deeper into the outing,” said May, who threw 87 pitches, 53 of them for strikes, “but I still sucked.”
Dodgers infielder Hanser Alberto threw a scoreless ninth to set a major league record with seven pitching appearances by a non-pitcher in one season.
The Dodgers’ bullpen got a potentially huge shot in the arm before the game when veteran right-hander Blake Treinen, out since mid-April because of a shoulder injury, was activated.
The team will have five weeks to determine whether Treinen can regain the primary setup role he held in 2020 and 2021 — or possibly replace wobbly closer Craig Kimbrel — or if he’ll be more of a complementary piece to Kimbrel, Evan Phillips, Chris Martin and Alex Vesia.
Treinen was dominant in 2021, going 6-5 with a 1.99 ERA in 72 games. He had a 4.50 ERA in seven triple-A rehabilitation outings, striking out nine and walking one in six innings, but his fastball was clocked between 92-95 mph, down its usual 97.5 mph in 2021.
“I don’t know if that was adrenaline-related,” Roberts said. “In talking to Blake, the training staff, he feels strong and feels great.”
Roberts said Treinen will be used “in leverage, whatever that means,” but will enter games to start innings and will not go multiple innings for now.