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Max Scherzer passes every test the Phillies and MLB’s ‘sticky stuff’ inspections throw at him

Nationals ace Max Scherzer waits to be checked for foreign substances near home plate umpire Tim Timmons after the first inning Tuesday in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP)

PHILADELPHIA — Max Scherzer stood in front of the mound, his eyes wide and fiery, and started to undo his belt. He had already tossed his hat and glove to the grass, angry that Philadelphia Phillies Manager Joe Girardi had asked for him to be checked for foreign substances — or “sticky stuff” — in the bottom of the fourth inning at Citizens Bank Park on Tuesday night. The umpires had checked the Washington Nationals’ ace after the first and third innings. They deemed him clean.

But Girardi asked for another screening, so another screening was performed. Scherzer turned his palms up, his face showing the frustration of a man stopped for additional screening at the airport, his flight boarding in 10 minutes. To be fair, that wasn’t too far off.

“I’d have to be an absolute fool to actually use something tonight,” Scherzer said, nodding to MLB beginning its crackdown on foreign substances this week, “when everybody’s antenna is so far high to look for anything.”

The Nationals eventually beat the Phillies, 3-2, with Scherzer logging five innings and yielding one run and two hits. It was his first start since going to the injured list with groin inflammation June 15. He struck out eight. He was solid, if a bit rusty, and the offense did enough against the Phillies’ Zack Wheeler to seal a 10th win in 13 games.

Svrluga: Keep your pants on! MLB has time to get new rules under control, but must act now.

Yet that was all upstaged by Girardi’s request and Scherzer’s reaction. Then Scherzer finished the fifth with a strikeout, stared down Girardi, then held up his glove and hat from the dugout, taunting the manager, before Girardi was ejected while en route to have a closer word with the Nationals and their ace.

MLB’s enforcement memo for foreign substances stated that a “manager will be subject to discipline if he makes the request in bad faith (e.g. a request intended to disrupt the pitcher in a critical game situation, a routine request that is not based on observable evidence, etc.). 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.”

In this case, Scherzer was inspected after the first inning, after the third, then upon Girardi’s request in the fourth. In the moment, the umpires decided it was a good-faith request and acted accordingly. And in the wake of that call, a game morphed into a shouting match between grown men in pajamas.

Washington Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer on June 22 reacted to the three inspections for foreign substances he received from umpires during a ballgame. (Video: Washington Nationals)

Girardi later explained that, in all his years watching Scherzer, he hadn’t seen him “wipe his head” so frequently. Scherzer’s counter was that, with just rosin on his fingers, he needed the sweat in his hair to aid his grip.

Crew chief Alfonso Márquez on Girardi’s ask: “We thought it was a legitimate request just based on the actions on the mound by the pitcher.”

Girardi: “I didn’t mean to offend anyone. I’ve just got to do what’s right for our club.”

And Scherzer: “I was sick of licking my fingers and tasting rosin, and I couldn’t even get sweat from the back of my head because it wasn’t really a warm night. So for me, the only part that was sweaty on me was actually my hair, so I had to take off my hat to be able to try to get any type of moisture on my hand.”

Now let’s rewind a bit. Let’s take a deep breath, too.

On Monday, umpires began checking pitchers across the majors, part of MLB’s effort to eliminate the use of any substances aside from rosin and sweat. Starters will be checked at least twice in each outing. Relievers will be checked after the first inning they pitch. Closers will be checked before they enter, a way of avoiding controversy at the end of contests. Pitchers face a 10-game penalty if an umpire feels anything sticky on the ball, their fingers, their glove, hat or belt.

Mike Rizzo calls Joe Girardi a ‘con artist’ after Max Scherzer sticky stuff check in Philly

Many in the sport, the 36-year-old Scherzer included, have argued that some sticky substance is needed to control pitches and avoid errant fastballs. But Scherzer was also named in a recent Sports Illustrated story about Bubba Harkins, a former Los Angeles Angels visiting clubhouse manager who provided sticky substances to pitchers — allegedly Scherzer, Gerrit Cole and Adam Wainwright, among others — and is suing MLB for defamation after he was fired in March 2020.

When asked about the report last week, Scherzer declined to comment while litigation is still pending. (Harkins’s complaint was thrown out by a judge, but he is appealing.) Then Scherzer was thrust into the first controversy of baseball’s feeling-belts-hats-and-gloves-for-a-mix-of-rosin-and-sunscreen-or-something-else era.

Before it began, managers could ask umpires to check an opposing pitcher for sticky stuff. But because it was such a regular practice, the deterrent for each manager was that the opposing dugout would just do the same to their guy. Girardi, for example, had never had Scherzer inspected in prior meetings, the most recent one coming June 4. On Tuesday, though, he wanted Scherzer looked at after the right-hander struck out Alec Bohm on a 95-mph fastball. Earlier in the at-bat, Scherzer nearly hit Bohm with a fastball that ended up near the third baseman’s face.

“For me, it’s kind of confusing,” said Scherzer, who didn’t address whether Girardi’s request was in “good faith” or performative. “If you watch the Bohm at-bat, I almost put a 95-mph fastball in his head because the ball slipped out of my hand.”

Svrluga: Baseball’s disease is unchecked power, and sticky stuff is just another symptom

Girardi kept touching his hat, indicating Scherzer may have something sticky on the bill of his. That’s when Scherzer nearly dropped his pants. That’s when his manager, Dave Martinez, rushed from the dugout, argued with the umpires and soon left the field screaming and pointing at Girardi. That’s when Scherzer rubbed his hand through his hair, peering at Girardi while saying: “It’s sweat. … It’s sweat!”

And that boiled to the end of the fifth, with Scherzer striking out J.T. Realmuto on a 96-mph fastball, his 106th and final pitch, before fixing his eyes on Girardi. The manager stepped out of his dugout, leaning toward the Nationals’, later making his way around the warning track in their direction. Scherzer held up his glove and hat, taunting Girardi, and Washington pitching coach Jim Hickey seemed to mock Girardi, too, his hands in the air in fake fear. Girardi was then ejected by home plate umpire Tim Timmons.

“As far as Joe is concerned, I think he has to answer the tough questions about that,” said Martinez, who kept echoing that his team won and wasn’t bothered by the fourth-inning circus. “I don’t need to answer that.”

Four full innings remained. Brad Hand stranded the bases loaded in the ninth, completing a four-out, 34-pitch save to keep the Nationals on a tear. They are only four games back of the New York Mets in the National League East. They can sweep the Phillies on Wednesday. But the night and the series shifted when Girardi chose to test Scherzer, and it never shifted back. Here were the first reverberations of regulating what had been accepted for so long, what was stitched into the game like spitting or rain delays. Here was what to expect.

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