The missed ground ball left Dustin May crumpled on the grass.
But in his second start back from Tommy John surgery, it was a curveball he left hanging in the strike zone that signaled — for as promising as he has looked in his return to the team — the fine margins where the right-hander can still progress down the stretch.
Indeed, May largely pitched well in the Dodgers’ 2-1 loss to the Miami Marlins at LoanDepot Park on Saturday night.
Not well enough to outduel Marlins ace Sandy Alcantara, who bounced back from a six-run clunker against the Dodgers on Sunday by tossing his fourth complete game of a likely Cy Young Award-worthy season.
Not well enough to overcome the Dodgers’ defensive capitulation in the sixth inning, either, when May and second baseman Chris Taylor misplayed two-out grounders to extend an inning in which the Marlins scored the eventual winning run.
But, just like in his season debut last weekend, the hard-throwing, red-haired May again flashed the kind of tantalizing potential that could make him a key weapon for the Dodgers (87-38) down the stretch and into the playoffs.
“If we could have banked his first two performances coming back from Tommy John, we would have banked what he’s done so far,” manager Dave Roberts said. “Dustin’s doing everything and more than we could have hoped for.”
That doesn’t mean May is all the way back.
Roberts conceded the pitcher still “can get considerably better” and that “there’s a lot of finishing school that needs to happen.”
“Dustin’s talent, his drive, his will, certainly allows him to do well and compete at this level,” Roberts added. “But to get where we need to be this year, and counting on him in certain spots, there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
May voiced similar frustration with himself, upset not only that he missed the two-out ground ball in the sixth inning but also that he failed to execute too many pitches — including the one that ultimately decided the outcome.
“I feel like there’s a lot of steps forward I can take,” May said. “Execution could definitely be a lot better, being able to not yank stuff or [throw] just bad spinning breaking balls. Just being able to put guys away.”
During the first five innings, May cruised. He stranded a walk in the first inning, retired the side in order in the second and third, and yielded his only run on Brian Anderson’s single in the fourth.
After mowing through the Marlins (55-71) in the fifth, he was on the verge of another clean inning in the sixth, getting Joey Wendle to hit a slow roller back toward the mound for what should have been the final out.
May whiffed on the grounder as he charged toward it, however, misjudging a hop to let the ball skirt under his glove.
He dropped to the ground in disappointment, craning his neck as Wendle pulled into first with what was ruled a single.
“I wish I could take the ground-ball error back on my end,” he said. “I just, I didn’t get to it, and then it went right under my glove.”
Taylor allowed the inning to continue with a miscue of his own, booting a chopper at second base in the next at-bat to put two aboard in what was still a tie game.
Trying to buckle down and escape the inning, May got ahead of Jerar Encarnacion in the next at-bat with two sinkers and a curveball. In a 1-and-2 count, he tried to sneak another curveball over the outer part of the plate. He missed his spot, though, leaving the pitch over the middle for Encarnacion to line to left field.
The RBI single gave the Marlins a lead that Alcantara wouldn’t surrender, his only blemish coming on Mookie Betts’ 30th home run of the season in the third inning.
It also summed up a night in which May pitched well but not flawlessly — underlining the little ways over the final month of the season the Dodgers still need him to grow.
“He pitched great again tonight, but I think he’s got another level to go to,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “It’s only a matter of time. He’s going to be a force out there.”
Clayton Kershaw nearing return
Starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw threw a four-inning simulated game Saturday, lining him up to return to the Dodgers’ rotation Thursday or Friday. … Reliever Chris Martin said he doesn’t believe his recent elbow issue will necessitate an injured list stint and said a recent MRI exam came back clean. … Utility man Gavin Lux still hadn’t progressed enough from his neck injury to play Saturday. Roberts said he could be back Sunday or Monday.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.