In a matter of seconds Tuesday night, Max Scherzer went from pumping a 96-mph fastball by Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm to performing a striptease in front of the mound.
All in the name of proving he wasn’t doctoring the ball.
Night 2 of Major League Baseball’s crackdown on pitchers using illegal sticky substances turned absurd when Phillies manager Joe Girardi asked the umpires to check Scherzer’s hair in the fourth inning of a 3-2 loss to the Washington Nationals at Citizens Bank Park.
Never mind that the Nationals ace got the now-obligatory TSA-style frisking from home-plate umpire Tim Timmons after the first and third innings. Girardi wasn’t satisfied. So, Scherzer dropped his hat and glove, unbuckled his belt, began to unbutton his pants, raised his arms, and repeated, “I got nothin.’” If not for crew chief Alfonso Marquez interceding, Scherzer might’ve gone full Ned Braden from Slap Shot.
“Immediately I spoke with him,” Marquez said, “and I said ‘Hey, don’t get ejected over this. Let us just do our job and then we’ll be fine.’”
It’s a dirty job, but these days, the umpires have to do it. Their inspection turned up “nothing but sweat,” according to Marquez, and as Nationals manager Dave Martinez griped about the silliness of it all, Girardi went to the top step of the dugout and hollered back.
“I’ve seen Max a long time, since 2010 — he’s going to be a Hall of Famer — but I’ve never seen him wipe his head like he was doing tonight. Ever. Going like this,” Girardi said, running his hand through his hair. “So it was suspicious for me. He did it about four or five times. It was suspicious. I didn’t mean to offend anyone. I just have to do what’s right for our club.”
Talk about delicious theater for the announced crowd of 19,652. And Scherzer and Girardi somehow managed to top it in the bottom of the fifth.
After an inning-ending strikeout of J.T. Realmuto, the Nationals’ three-time Cy Young Award winner glared at Girardi the whole way back to the dugout. Girardi stomped onto the field and appeared to challenge the Nationals’ bench to a fight. After being intercepted by Timmons, Girardi was ejected.
But hey, at least Scherzer wasn’t found to be cheating.
“I wasn’t challenging their club,” Girardi said. “There were some coaches that were screaming at me, coaches that I know, and it bothered me. I’m not playing games. I’m trying to win games here. I have respect for what Max has done in his career. I have to do what’s right for our team.”
Scherzer didn’t even have particularly good command of his pitches. In the at-bat that preceded Girardi’s calling of the cops, he almost hit Bohm in the head with a 95-mph fastball because he said he couldn’t get a good grip of the ball with only rosin.
“I was sick of licking my fingers and tasting rosin the whole night,” Scherzer said. “I couldn’t even get sweat from the back of my head because it wasn’t really a warm night. The only part that was sweaty on me was actually my hair, so I had to take off my hat to try to get some type of moisture on my hand to mix with the rosin.
“When you look at how the game unfolded and specifically that at-bat, I’d have to be an absolute fool to actually use something tonight when everybody’s antennae is so far high.”
Last week, with the use of Spider Tack and other sticky substances having grown so prevalent as to suppress the offense in the game, MLB announced it was authorizing umpires to conduct “regular checks of all pitchers regardless of whether an opposing club’s manager makes a request,” with ejections and 10-game suspensions for pitchers who get nabbed.
The policy took effect Monday. The Phillies were off. And before they faced the Nationals, Girardi said he was curious to see how it all worked. He also didn’t rule out the possibility of asking the umpires to conduct a pat down.
MLB’s policy allows managers to make that request. But in a memo to teams, the commissioner’s office stipulated that managers who do so “in bad faith,” notably gamesmanship purposes, may be disciplined.
“I’m not going to play games,” Girardi said before the game. “That’s silly. It’s just, if you see something that’s clear cut, you’ll probably ask them.”
Scherzer appeared irritated when the umpires checked him after the first and third innings. He gave up a second-deck leadoff homer to Bryce Harper in the second inning. But the Nationals had a 3-1 lead and knocked Phillies ace Zack Wheeler out of the game by the time Girardi took his action.
“We thought it was a legitimate request just based on the actions on the mound by the pitcher,” Marquez said, “so we thought it was a good request to go check him.”
But it’s worth wondering if Girardi’s move will invite greater scrutiny for Phillies pitchers from opposing managers.
“If it does, it does,” Girardi said. “I don’t worry about that. I don’t worry about our guys because I know what our guys do.”
Scherzer lasted only five innings, allowing two hits and three walks while striking out eight. Wheeler lasted only three innings, the fourth-shortest start of his career and shortest since June 19, 2017, when he was with the New York Mets.
But conspiracy theorists can forget linking Wheeler’s first dud of a stellar season to the crackdown on sticky stuff. According to Statcast, his average spin rate on his four-seam fastball (2,399 rpms) and curveball (2,680 rpms) was actually higher than his season averages (2,391 and 2,627, respectively).
The Phillies made an interesting game dramatic in the late innings. Rhys Hoskins cut the deficit to one run with a solo homer in the eighth. In the ninth, the Phillies loaded the bases with one out against Nationals closer Brad Hand. But Odúbel Herrera flied out to shallow left field, and after working the count full, Hoskins grounded out.
But after what ensued in the fourth inning between Girardi and Scherzer, it figures to be all anybody in baseball will be talking about.
“It’s unfortunate that pitchers are all kind of getting lumped together because there are some guys in the league that decide to take it too far,” Hoskins said. “But this is what we have to do now, at least for this year. We’ve just got to deal with it.”