On Tuesday night in Philadelphia, Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer proved that it’s possible to spitefully, even combatively, unbuckle your belt and begin to disrobe on a baseball field.
Given some time to think about it, though, it wasn’t the players he took issue with, it was the new state of the game.
The first day of mandatory checks for the long-illegal sticky stuff abused by pitchers made the whole process seem rather seamless. The league’s new approach to foreign substances is intended to ensure an even playing field. Starters are checked at least twice every game, relievers once. Umpires initiate and conduct the screenings in between innings. And amid another historically dominant start, the Mets’ Jacob deGrom was practically jovial when he became the inaugural pitcher to have his glove, hat and just a bit of belt patted down. The rest of those routine inspections on Monday were similarly uneventful.
That held until the end of the first inning in Philly on Tuesday. Scherzer, who has been previously implicated in reports about the widespread use of sophisticated super-tacky substances, managed to Mad Max his way through a rather perfunctory sweep. His visible annoyance (looking like he was literally crucified may have been overkill) made for the first truly viral content of the Non-stick Era, but the drama was just beginning.
Scherzer was checked again after the third inning. He didn’t like that one either.
In the fourth inning, working with a two-run lead and a spin rate down slightly but not negligibly from early 2021 starts, Scherzer buzzed a 95 mph four-seam fastball up and in to Alec Bohm, who dove for the dirt unscathed. Bohm struck out, but Phillies manager Joe Girardi chose that moment to ask the umpires to just double check one more time to see if Scherzer was cheating.
“I’ve seen Max a long time, since 2010, obviously he’s going to be a Hall of Famer,” Girardi said postgame. “But I’ve never seen him wipe his head like he was doing tonight, ever. So it was suspicious for me.”
That, as you might imagine, did not go over well. “I would have to be an absolute fool to actually use something tonight,” Scherzer said later.
Whether Girardi was intentionally weaponizing requests to pat down a member of the opposition who had demonstrably pantomimed his frustration with the process is a subjective matter.
The MLB memo sent to teams last week broadcasting the coming crackdown said that, “If a manager makes a request for inspection, the umpire will determine whether and when to inspect the pitcher, taking into account when the pitcher was last inspected and whether the request was made in good faith.” Umpires can refuse requests if they think they’re made strategically rather than in response to genuine suspicion, and, “if they determine the request was made in bad faith, eject the manager.”
Umpire Alfonso Márquez told a pool reporter after the game that they deemed the request legitimate and set out to check Scherzer’s hair.
But by the time the umpires and Nationals manager Dave Martinez got to the foot of the mound, Scherzer had thrown down his hat, glove and the metaphorical gauntlet. His belt was undone.
“Immediately I spoke with him and I said, ‘Hey, don’t get ejected over this. Let us just do our job and then we’ll be fine,’” Márquez said.
That lasted about an inning.
After a one-two-three fifth, Scherzer stared daggers into the home dugout. Girardi, with the heart of a lion and the knees of a 56-year-old ex-catcher, climbed to the top step and appeared to yell, “Let’s go!” Mercifully, he was ejected before they could, in fact, go.
“There were some coaches screaming at me,” Girardi said, “coaches that I know.”
Back in his own dugout, Scherzer brandished his certified substance-free hat and glove like talismans of his squeaky clean dominance. And on this particular night, his Nationals pulled off a victory to support the posturing. All told, it took nearly four hours. But at least you could say there was plenty of action on the field.
Here’s the thing: Scherzer’s uncharacteristic head swipes? He doesn’t deny those, and they are new — an adaptation to a ban on sticky stuff that extends from strongman glue Spider Tack all the way down to the paste formed by mixing sunscreen and rosin. Pitchers, going cold turkey on everything they’ve always used to give themselves extra grip on inconsistent baseballs, are bristling at MLB’s midseason course correction, wanting commissioner Rob Manfred and the league to understand what they frame as a dilemma: Squeeze the baseball a little harder and risk injury, or stay loose and potentially fire a missile toward the batter.
“I almost put a 95 mph fastball in his head because the ball slipped out of my hand,” Scherzer said of the Bohm at-bat.
He explained that on a cool night with little sweat and nothing else available to mix with rosin, the ball felt slick and dangerous. After “eating rosin” all night licking his fingers for moisture, he started running his hands through his hair to pick up whatever sweat was there.
That was what Girardi saw, Scherzer said, a pitcher who had “zero feel of the baseball tonight, whatsoever.”
He came to his postgame news conference armed with a warning and a suggestion:
“We're gonna continue to have more events like this happen,” Scherzer said. “These are Manfred rules. I mean go ask him, what do you want to do with this?”
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