"I was embarrassed because, as a professional player I was pitching like I was 12," May said. "And it was frustrating because I knew I could do better than that. I've seen a lot of those same things be my problem here. I know the hitters are better, but I don't have any excuse for anything I've done. I just haven't done my job well at all."
May entered this season as the Phillies' top prospect because of a fastball that runs up to 95 m.p.h. And through his first month with double-A Reading, he looked the part, going 4-0 with a 2.40 ERA in five starts. But soon after, the bottom fell out. In his last 15 starts, May is 3-8 with a 6.51 ERA.
The solution, May said, is simple, and yet difficult: He needs to throw strikes. Control has plagued May through much of his five-year career, but last season he improved, leading to thoughts that the wayward days of his youth were behind him. This year, though, his walk rate climbed to 5.2 per nine innings - about par with his career average.
So, how to get back to hitting the strike zone? For one thing, May and pitching coach Bob Milacki are streamlining his delivery. The change began after a loss to Portland on July 18, when May walked eight batters in five innings.
May said he feels comfortable, that he's picked up the adjustments easily. But on-field results haven't shown it. On Monday, in his most recent start, May surrendered four solo home runs in five innings, mostly because he fell behind batters early in counts before serving easy-to-hit strikes.
But even if a new delivery helps, May is pursuing another change. This one is much more abstract, and perhaps more challenging. He wants to train his mind.
May is analytical. When a reporter asks why he struggles, he will talk for three, four minutes nonstop, dissecting every angle of his recent failures. It's just how he's wired, he said. And in most elements of life, it's helpful. But not during a game.
As one bad inning became two, and one bad start became four or five, May said, he spent too much time reflecting on each mistake, thinking about what he should have done instead. He can't stop, and it hurts him. It keeps him in his rut. Even when he starts well, doubt creeps into his mind as he sits in the dugout, waiting to return to the mound.
"I've had success," he said. "Then I was worried about not being able to do it the next time. It's as simple as that. I get behind that guy, and then I'm like, 'Oh, God. Oh, God. I hope this doesn't turn into one of those bad outings.' And then it turns into one of those bad outings. . . . My brain is expecting me to fail at some point."
Earlier this month, May started talking to sports psychologist Jack Clark. He is reading self-help books for athletes, including Baseball's 6th Tool, Mental Gym, and 10-Minute Toughness.
He is trying to find what he calls a proper mental approach. He now talks to himself on the mound - if you say it, you think it.
At home, he tries not to think about baseball. In the offseason, May deejays at clubs in Seattle, and at his house in Reading a turntable waits in his room.
And when he's pitching, May tries to remind himself to stay positive. That's tough, he said, because he likes to make fun of himself. It's a defense mechanism. He remembers being a boy, crying on the mound during a bad game. And he remembers the other boys, the ones who made fun of him in those moments.
"Kids are cruel," he said. "They'd make fun of me for having tears when I got frustrated or I got mad, especially as I got older. I was 14, 15, and I'd still have tears in my eyes when I'd go out and pitch poorly. I'd show it on the mound and throw fits. It would just be embarrassing. When kids made fun of me at school or on the baseball field, I'd just laugh along with them, beat them to the punch."
As a young adult, May is learning to let go of his insecurity. Those mean-spirited boys are now men, his teammates and his opponents, people who are suffering through the ranks of the minor leagues with him. His peers aren't looking for cheap laughs anymore. They aren't giggling behind his back after a rough outing.
May has studied the way his former roommate, Jonathan Pettibone, approaches the game. Pettibone, whom the Phillies promoted to triple-A Lehigh Valley on Wednesday, is a simple person, May said. He messes up on the mound, he stays cool. He does well, he stays cool. And now, if he can keep staying cool, and if his pitches are good enough, Pettibone is one step away from Philadelphia.
That eats at May a little bit, being so close to his dream. When he started the season 4-0, he thought he might get promoted soon. Then, who knows what would happen? But he didn't get promoted, and his trajectory has sputtered.
He thinks about that, he said, even when he isn't supposed to. Even when he is at home, working with music, baseball consumes his mind. He thinks about his recent mistakes, and how he could fix them. He knows one of the answers: Stop thinking about it. But that's not easy.
"I'm a guy who likes to analyze, think and talk," he said. "I put a lot of thought into it, as you can see. When something bugs me, it bugs me for a really long time. It's hard for me just to shrug it off because I need to fix it. I'm training my brain to be as simple as possible."
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