(Alex Brandon/AP)

The umpires converged around the mound, checked Peralta’s glove, confiscated it and ejected him. Reliever Jake McGee came on in relief instead and retired the side in order.

The ejection ignited a verbal firestorm from Tampa Bay Manager Joe Maddon who called Johnson’s challenge “cowardly,” saying the Nationals broke an unwritten rule of baseball. Pine tar is often used on bats to help improve grip, but pitchers aren’t allowed to use it while pitching.

“It was kind of a [chicken] move to go out there and do that under those circumstances,” Maddon said.

As he walked off the mound after his ejection, Peralta tipped his cap towards the Nationals’ dugout. “Good for them,” he said. “They still lose the game.”

“It was a rumor that he liked a little pine tar,” Johnson said. “I was hesitant to do it. Tim [Tschida] was looking at me kind of grinning. He said, ‘What do you want?’ I walked out and said, ‘Why don’t you check it, just to make sure. I’m curious.’ ”

Asked where the rumor came from, Johnson answered: “Well, he pitched here. I don’t think it’s a secret.” He had talked to his own players before the game.

“I said, ‘How’d we let this guy get away?’” he said. “I thought he pitched pretty good for us. I saw that he’s been the set-up man for Tampa Bay. I got probably more information than I really needed.”

This all incensed Maddon.

“From a real veteran staff on the other side, knowing how this thing works and how it’s worked for many, many years, you can go back to spitball pitchers to greaseball pitchers to whatever kind of pitchers to scuffball pitchers, this is just how the game has been played for 100 years, more than that,” he said. “So to single out Joel Peralta tonight, that’s my concern.”

Peralta appeared in 39 games, pitching 49 innings, with a 2.02 ERA for the Nationals in 2010. Earlier that season, he appeared in 28 games for Class AAA Syracuse, where his manager was current Nationals first base coach Trent Jewett. Peralta said he wouldn’t hold any grudges against Jewett, who was like a father to him in Syracuse, if he did tip off Johnson.

“I don’t care what they did,” Peralta said. “I played one year here and I did my best to help the team win games and I have a really, really good year here and get along with everybody. I don’t care what they do.”

Maddon was the bench coach for the Angels in June 2005 when then-Nationals Manager Frank Robinson, acting on a tip for his player, former Angels outfielder Jose Guillen, asked that umpires check the glove of Angels reliever Brendan Donnelly. Before Donnelly threw a pitch, he was ejected because of pine tar in his glove. Robinson and Angels Manager Mike Scioscia engaged in a heated exchange and had to be separated by Tschida, who was umpiring that game, too.

Peralta said the glove was the same one he used in batting practice but wouldn’t say whether the pine tar was on there by accident or on purpose. He said he wasn’t using it to gain a competitive edge. He added that he wasn’t sure if he would be suspended.

“I don’t know if they’re going to do anything about it,” Peralta said. “I hope not. It’s not like I’m using pine tar my whole career.”

In retaliation, Maddon asked that Tschida check Nationals reliever Ryan Mattheus’s hat and glove with two outs in the ninth inning.

“I looked at the hat,” Tschida said. “He put them both out. I looked at the hat. The hat was all sweat anyway. And the glove was clean as a whistle.”

Mattheus smiled toward the Rays’ dugout after the umpires came to mound.

“I’m not going to take it personal,” he said. “It’s gamesmanship. We did it to them. I’m sure they wanted to make sure we weren’t at an unfair advantage with something sticky in our gloves. I didn’t take it as an insult.”

Maddon said that pine tar is used among pitchers, and that other coaches know about its uses by opponents and do nothing about it.

“Insider trading right there, man,” he said. “It’s bush. It’s bogus. That’s way too easy right there. If you’d done some really good police work and you noticed something from a distance, that’s different. But that’s way too easy. That was set up on a tee for them.”

More on Nationals vs. Rays:

Wang struggles, Rays reliever ejected in Nats’ loss

Box score: Rays 5, Nationals 4