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Max Scherzer, Joe Girardi and the fastball at the center of MLB’s messy sticky stuff drama

Umpires check Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer during Tuesday's game. (Matt Slocum/AP)
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PHILADELPHIA — By Wednesday morning, the second since Major League Baseball began to enforce its crackdown on the use of foreign substances by pitchers, part of the sport-wide reaction could be summed up in a series of snapshots and sound bites.

Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo went on the radio and called Philadelphia Phillies Manager Joe Girardi a “con artist” for both requesting to have Max Scherzer checked in the fourth inning Tuesday night, then defending the move as an honest ask and not an effort to rattle Scherzer. On MLB Network Radio, Nationals left fielder Kyle Schwarber called Girardi’s decision “a little bush league.” Scherzer had nearly dropped his pants before the umpires rubbed his hair, searching for a sticky substance. Nothing was found.

So in California, Los Angeles Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw suggested Girardi and every other manager should face punishment if they request a mid-inning check and the pitcher is clean. In Texas, Oakland Athletics reliever Sergio Romo did lower his pants in protest of the now-regular checks, stopping around his thighs. These were early results of MLB’s attempt to eliminate doctoring the ball with foreign substances — or sticky stuff — and level the playing field between pitchers and hitters.

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And it all made it look as if Tuesday’s events — and the screaming from dugout to dugout in Philadelphia — are the pressing issue with MLB’s enforcement efforts, which began this week. But every dust-up fades. Some do faster than others. In his postgame news conference, Scherzer instead directed reporters to a pitch he threw in the at-bat before Girardi had his hat, hair, glove and belt inspected.

It wasn’t the 95-mph fastball that stuck out Alec Bohm swinging. It was the 95-mph fastball that soared toward Bohm’s face. Since last week, Scherzer has argued that pitchers need grip — or “tack,” as he calls it — to control pitches and avoid hitting and injuring batters. An MLB official said Wednesday that the sport is continuing to look into using a pre-tacked ball or a universal substance to help pitchers maintain grip and is developing prototypes. But neither seems likely to arrive soon.

“That pitch specifically is the pitch I fear the most,” Scherzer, who is 36 years old and an influential member of the players’ union, said of the high-and-tight fastball that almost hit Bohm. “I don’t want to throw that pitch. I never want to throw a ball near somebody’s head. And tonight . . . in the previous at-bat, I was able to get a fastball by him on an inside fastball, and I was literally trying to throw the same exact pitch, and it just slips out of my hand and it ends up near his face.

“I mean, thank God it did not hit him in the face.”

Pitchers who violate ‘sticky stuff’ rules will face 10-game suspensions, MLB says

Two pitches later, once Bohm was retired, Girardi signaled for a check and kept touching his hat. After the game, Girardi justified the check by saying he had never seen Scherzer remove his hat and rub his hands through his hair so much. Scherzer explained that, without any other substances, he was left to mix rosin with spit or sweat to get a grip on his pitches. And because he was sick of tasting rosin while licking his fingers and because it was a cooler night in Philadelphia, the only sweat he could find was in his hair.

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)

There is a fine line between a good faith request, which the umpires felt Girardi made Tuesday night, and a request to disrupt a pitcher’s rhythm, which can get a manager fined or suspended, according to MLB’s enforcement memo. And there is also a fine line between substances that enhance performance (such as Spider Tack, which is used in strongman competitions) or blends that aid grip to improve control (such as rosin and sunscreen, a common mix that has long been used in baseball).

Often, these effects are one in the same. Sticky substances help pitchers throw baseballs very hard and in the strike zone. Scherzer and others can argue for batter safety, and pitches such as the one to Bohm — a screaming fastball at his teeth — are good supporting evidence. So was the 90-mph heater that broke Nationals pitcher Austin Voth’s nose at Citizens Bank Park on June 6.

This is why Scherzer and Nationals Manager Dave Martinez have lobbied for a universal substance for pitchers. But the flip side is that intentions are hard to decode. In most cases, it is impossible to know how a pitcher is utilizing sticky stuff yet easy to see his climbing spin rates or a fastball that appears unhittable.

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“We were so stupid as hitters, saying, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s for control. We just don’t want them to hit us,’ ” Chicago Cubs star Kris Bryant told reporters Tuesday night, adding that he is happy to see enforcement picking up. “That was such a cop-out.”

Scherzer said of his effort to grip his pitches against the Phillies: “The only sweaty part on me is my hair. So that’s where I was just trying to get my moisture to mix with rosin, try to get any type of tack, and even that wasn’t working. I mean, I had zero feel of the baseball tonight whatsoever.”

That wasn’t the discussion that spilled into Wednesday morning. Rizzo didn’t mince words on his weekly appearance with ‘The Sports Junkies” on 106.7 the Fan, adding that Girardi’s request had “nothing to do with substances” and “he had no probable cause to ask for it.” Before the teams faced off again Wednesday, Dave Dombrowski, the Phillies’ president of baseball operations, told reporters that he called the MLB office and it deemed Girardi’s request legitimate. He also said the manager is “the furthest from a con artist.”

But once this goes away, MLB still has to confront the problems that kick-started Tuesday’s mess. Scherzer felt they were shown by that one pitch to Bohm, with inches separating a ball from a disastrous injury. It could soon be clear how many decision-makers agree.

Chelsea Janes and Scott Allen in Washington contributed to this report, which has been updated.