The questions facing the Washington Nationals subsided for a moment Tuesday night, when umpires encircled the opposing relief pitcher who used to be one of them, the one with guilt on his face and something funny on his glove. The Tampa Bay Rays were handing the Nationals their fourth straight loss, ultimately a 5-4 defeat, and Chien-Ming Wang was losing his grip on the fifth starter spot.
The controversial ejection of Joel Peralta, a journeyman reliever and former National, overtook those issues. At the start of the eighth inning, before Peralta had thrown a pitch, Manager Davey Johnson asked the umpiring crew to check the reliever’s glove. The umpires found a foreign substance inside it, and they ejected Peralta. It did not help the Nationals win, but it injected newfound intrigue into the next two days at Nationals Park.
“It’s kind of a common practice that people have done this for years,” Rays Manager Joe Maddon said. “And to point one guy out because he had pitched here a couple years, there is probably some common knowledge based on that, and so I thought it was a real cowardly [move]. It was kind of a [chicken] move to go out there and do that under those circumstances.”
The Nationals already had enough intrigue, though, mostly wrapped in the question of what to do about their fifth starter. Wang produced a clunker, yielding five runs on seven hits and three walks over 3 1/3 innings and raising his ERA in four starts to 6.75. Ross Detwiler, the hard-throwing left-hander who began the season as the Nationals’ fifth starter, retired 11 of the 12 batters he faced in 3 2/3 hitless, scoreless innings in relief of Wang.
Johnson still indicated he will stick with Wang, the veteran who returned last year from major shoulder surgery and then missed the first month of this season after tearing a hamstring in spring training.
“I know how good he can be,” Johnson said. “My job is to get everybody doing the things they’re capable of doing. That’s my job. If I thought he could get it better out of the bullpen, that would come into the decision. I’m not going to make a decision right after a rough outing.”
Said Wang: “It’s kind of frustrating for me right now. I was trying to locate my ball today, and it wasn’t working.”
Wang’s effort put the Nationals in a 5-2 hole. They made it a game when Michael Morse drilled a two-run home run, his first homer of the season, in the sixth inning off ace lefty David Price. The Nationals could not score again to tie the game off the Rays bullpen, but they managed to make it interesting in another way.
Peralta, who pitched for Class AAA Syracuse and the Nationals in 2010, entered to face pinch-hitter Steve Lombardozzi to start the bottom of the eighth. Home plate umpire Tim Tschida, at the urging of Johnson, walked to the mound and inspected Peralta’s glove. After a couple minutes, one of the umpires confiscated the glove and walked off the field. Peralta was ejected for using a “foreign substance” on his glove.
“It was a significant amount of pine tar,” Tschida said.
The Nationals had any number of players and coaches who could have known something about Peralta, a 36-year-old journeyman: Pitching coach Steve McCatty oversaw him in 2010. Bullpen coach Jim Lett monitored him. Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Sean Burnett pitched alongside him. First base coach Trent Jewett managed him that season at Syracuse.
“It was a rumor that he liked a little pine tar,” Johnson said. “I was hesitant to do it. Tim 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.’ ”
And how he did hear the rumor?
“Well, he pitched here,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it’s a secret.”
Peralta tipped his cap in the direction of the Nationals’ dugout on his way off the field. He claimed he used the same glove in batting practice Tuesday night, and the pine tar had come from the residue of balls while playing catch.
“Good for them,” he said. “They still lose the game.”
Maddon, irate, suggested Nationals players would be perturbed by Johnson’s decision to check Peralta’s glove. Several relievers declined extensive comment and described the incident only as “unfortunate.” One National called Peralta “one of my favorite teammates of all-time.”
After Peralta walked off the mound, Maddon summoned Jake McGee, who retired Lombardozzi, Danny Espinosa and Bryce Harper in order. In the top of the ninth, after waiting until there were two outs, Maddon requested the umpires check Nationals reliever Ryan Mattheus’s hat.
“I’m not going to take it personal,” Mattheus 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.”
Said Tschida: “I told Joe Maddon that this isn’t going to go on all night. So if you want to challenge, you get one. So pick the guy you want and make it count.”
Mattheus handed his hat to Tschida and laughed it off. “I knew I was clean,” Mattheus said.
“The hat was all sweat anyway,” Tschida said. “And the glove was clean as a whistle.”
Mattheus struck out B.J. Upton to end the inning, then took a quick, subtle glance into the Rays’ dugout. Johnson said he did not expect the incident to linger beyond Tuesday night and into the next two games. Maddon did not seem as certain.
“Before you start throwing rocks, understand where you live,” Maddon said.
The Rays could celebrate a victory because of how Wang faltered at the start. Ian Desmond had given Nationals (38-27) a 2-1 lead in the second with his career-high 11th homer of the season.
In the third, Wang fell apart. Desmond Jennings led off with a walk. Carlos Pena followed with a home run to center field that flirted with international airspace. Even after Desmond bailed out Wang by throwing out B.J. Upton at home, Elliott Johnson drilled a two-run, two-out triple off the left-center field wall. The damage: a four-run inning and a 5-2 deficit.
Wang opened the fourth by walking Price, and he would face only one more batter. After the Nationals see how the rest of their now fascinating series against the Rays plays, they may face a decision on their fifth starter.