Nationals pitcher Max Scherzer is checked by umpires for foreign substances in the middle of the fourth inning Tuesday against the Philadelphia Phillies. Matt Slocum/Associated Press

However this was supposed to work, this isn’t it: Baseball as burlesque, with pitchers standing in the middle of diamonds, unbuckling their belts and taking down their pants. Sticky stuff? The sport is now in a sticky spot.

This wasn’t just about Max Scherzer on Tuesday night at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, though that’s a perfect place to start. That’s where Phillies Manager Joe Girardi watched the three-time Cy Young Award winner get checked by umpires for foreign substances twice – as is now required by rule – and decided that wasn’t enough.

That’s where the umpiring crew essentially had to talk Scherzer out of pulling down his pants in public, so frustrated was the Washington Nationals ace not just with Girardi’s strategy, but with Major League Baseball’s decision to go from zero to a billion miles per hour in policing an area that, for years, it barely policed at all.

“These are Manfred rules,” Scherzer said. “Go ask him what he wants to do with this.”

Home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi checks Red Sox relief pitcher Josh Taylor for any foreign substances after Taylor retired the Tampa Bay Rays during the seventh Tuesday in St. Petersburg, Fla. Chris O’Meara/Associated Press

We are awaiting response from the league. But for right now, this is MLB’s look: starting pitchers checked twice – and more, if an opposing manager has “probable cause,” which Girardi said he did because he had never seen Scherzer touch his hair so much, which Scherzer said he had to do because that’s the only place he could get any sweat on his fingers, which he needed to grip the baseball because he wasn’t using any other sticky stuff, because those are the rules.

Was this strictly about foreign substances on the baseball, the sport’s buzziest topic? Maybe. But maybe it was also Girardi engaging in a little gamesmanship.


“What are we, idiots?” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said Wednesday during a weekly radio appearance. “Of course he was. It’s embarrassing for Girardi. It’s embarrassing for the Phillies. It’s embarrassing for baseball. Yes, he was playing games. Hey, that’s his right. Gamesmanship, it had nothing to do with substances. He had no probable cause to ask for it.”

Think that’s the end of it? Hardly.

“Oh, we’re going to continue to have more events like this happen,” Scherzer said.

That much is clear, because on the very same night, veteran reliever Sergio Romo, now with the Oakland Athletics, nearly went full Chippendales when the umpires asked to check his glove and hat – dropping his drawers for the world to see.

“It’s just kind of a funny look in general,” said Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw all the way from San Diego, where he was pitching against the Padres – but hyper-aware of what happened in Philly.

“Scherzer, he’s one of the best pitchers of our generation,” Kershaw said, bringing up Max’s situation unprompted. “To see him get checked … and mess up his rhythm – I think he ended up getting out of it – you better find something if you’re going to call him out like that. Maybe there should be like a punishment if a manager checks a guy and there isn’t anything.”


I like that idea. Right now, if a manager challenges a call on the field and replay upholds the call, that manager loses the right to challenge other calls. Why not make Girardi, or any other manager, be so certain that Scherzer is using something prohibited that if he asks the pitcher to be searched, and nothing’s there, he loses the right to undress the opponent’s pitchers for the rest of the night?

Kershaw, with three Cy Youngs of his own, was asked if Girardi’s tactics – asking the umps to check a pitcher in the middle of an inning, particularly with runners on base – could become a strategy. Baseball is so tied up in rhythm – over a season, sure, but on a given night and even in a given at-bat – that disrupting it could be a tactic. It’s such an obvious notion that, in its memo to clubs last week, MLB said, “Please note that a manager will be subject to discipline if he makes the request (to inspect a pitcher) in bad faith,” specifically mentioning a manager can be ejected if so.

“It’s a good technique,” Kershaw said. “It throws you off.”

This was two days into MLB’s efforts to rein in a problem it had allowed to, excuse me, spin out of control. But here’s the thing: The league went from essentially ignoring something that’s written into its rule book – in multiple places, mind you – to creating what amounts to a Keystone Cops situation.

Over the past month, as the widespread use of sticky substances – Spider Tack and Pelican Bat Wax and other products with which the public was unfamiliar before this season – became more publicly reported, Scherzer has been adamant not only that pitchers need some help in gripping the ball, but that hitters actually want them to grip it better. Exhibit A: a high, riding fastball to Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm that approached Bohm’s face because, Scherzer said, it slipped. This was a night when Scherzer used just rosin and sweat to grip the baseball. That’s the pitch, he said, with which he wants a little bit more confidence in what it’s going to do.

“That pitch specifically is the pitch I fear the most,” he said. ” … I don’t ever want to put a fastball in somebody’s face, but we almost had that tonight. The ball slipped out of my hand.”


Look, we’re two days into this, and the sideshows can’t be the new normal. The good news is that it’s within baseball’s abilities to come up with some sort of compromise. That’s what this is about anyway: Trying to allow pitchers to grip the baseball properly, but not make it spin so much that it moves in ungodly ways. As Rizzo, in his calmer moments, said on the radio, “As we get used to this thing and we work the kinks out, I think we’ll get better.”

Kershaw’s suggestion is a good one, providing some sort of consequences for managers who guess wrong. Scherzer, who’s constantly thinking about all aspects of the game, pointed out that MLB already employs monitors in clubhouses to ensure players and club employees are wearing their masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Couldn’t those same monitors serve another purpose by checking pitchers between innings – rather than having them undress on the field.

“Let those guys examine what their hands look like, what substances are they using, how is this manifesting itself and continue to monitor the situation across the game and how guys pitch and what they want to obviously use on their hands,” Scherzer said.

What thoughts. What theater. Another slate of games awaits, onward over the course of the summer. Baseball is out to find a solution to a problem that got out of hand. The one it is employing now isn’t working.

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