We’re just days into the league’s on-the-fly implementation of testing pitchers for foreign substance usage, and the checks have predictably led to some bizarre scenes. A’s reliever Sergio Romo completely removing his belt and dropping his pants will elicit some laughs, but neither the Nationals nor the Phillies found much humor in the new rules yesterday when Philadelphia skipper Joe Girardi called for a check on Washington ace Max Scherzer with a runner on first base in the fourth inning (video link via MLB.com).
An incredulous Scherzer complied, but both he and Nats skipper Davey Martinez were visibly livid with Girardi after the umpiring crew gave us the jarring visual of running a hand through Scherzer’s hair before ultimately clearing him.
Scherzer, who’d already been checked after the first and third innings Tuesday, could visibly be seen yelling, “I’ve got sweat!” to Girardi as he ran his hand through his hair and returned to the mound. He escaped the inning unscathed, went on to complete five frames in his return from the IL and ultimately stared Girardi down as he walked off the field for the last time.
Further fireworks ensued. Girardi was tossed from the game after walking onto the field and challenging the opposing dugout. While some initially believed he was beckoning toward Scherzer, Jomboy astutely points out in a video breakdown that Nats hitting coach Kevin Long, who previously coached under Girardi in New York, was the clear target after lobbing some choice expletives toward his former skipper.
Girardi told reporters after the game that he had all the respect in the world for Scherzer’s career, calling him a future Hall of Famer. However, he also claimed (via Jim Salisbury of NBC Sports Philadelphia) that in more than a decade of watching the three-time Cy Young winner: “I’ve never seen him wipe his head like he was doing tonight. Ever.”
While Girardi insists that he wasn’t “playing games” to disrupt Scherzer’s rhythm on the mound, that defense isn’t flying with the Nationals. Washington general manager Mike Rizzo pulled no punches this morning when calling out Girardi during a weekly radio appearance.
“It’s embarrassing for Girardi,” Rizzo said on 106.7 The Fan (link with audio). “It’s embarrassing for the Phillies. Was he playing games? Of course he was. … He’s a con artist. He’s been doing that for years on TV. … I love Joe Girardi. I’ve seen him play since he was in high school in Peoria, Illinois — scouted him at Northwestern. I know him well. But I know him well.”
Rizzo is hardly the only one taking notice around the league. Fellow multi-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw, in his own postgame media session, went out of his way to express bewilderment toward Girardi despite not initially being asked about it (video link via SportsNet LA).
“I will say this,” Kershaw began. “You know how Girardi checked Scherzer, or called him out? I think there should be a punishment if they don’t catch anything on the guy. Scherzer is one of the best pitchers of our generation. To see him get checked … and mess up his rhythm, you better find something if you’re going to call him out like that. Maybe there should be a punishment if a manager checks a guy and there isn’t anything.”
Asked specifically whether managers could deliberately call for a check to disrupt a pitcher, Kershaw acknowledged it as a “good technique” for managers to use. He suggested that perhaps a failed substance check should lead to a team losing a replay challenge to prevent such gamesmanship.
“You get going in a rhythm, and maybe you have a guy on base, and they check you?” Kershaw continued. “It throws you off. It’s something that you’re not used to. … I think there should be some repercussions for managers just doing that on a whim like that, because if you call somebody out — anybody — but [especially] somebody of Max Scherzer’s caliber and you don’t find anything? I think that looks pretty bad on [Girardi’s] part.”
As for Scherzer himself, he expressed frustration regarding not only being called out by Girardi but by the situation in general. The repeated manner in which he ran his hand through his hair, he explained postgame, was in order to get some type of moisture to mix with the rosin he was using. (Pitchers are permitted to either lick their fingers or use sweat in conjunction with rosin under MLB’s current policy.)
“I got sick of licking my fingers and tasting rosin the whole night,” Scherzer explained postgame (video link via MLB.com). “I couldn’t even get sweat from the back of my head because it wasn’t a warm night. The only part that was sweaty on me was my hair, so I had to take off my hat to be able to try to get some moisture on my hand to mix with the rosin.”
Scherzer chuckled as he added that he’d be “an absolute fool” to use any kind of substance on a night when the focus on such usage would be at an all-time high. He further lamented the fact that in the at-bat prior to Girardi calling him out, he’d nearly hit Alec Bohm in the head with a 95 mph fastball that sailed out of his hand due to lack of grip — a common concern we’ve seen expressed both by pitchers and by position players.
Ultimately, Scherzer shifted the focus to commissioner Rob Manfred: “These are Manfred rules — go ask him what he wants to do with this. I’ve said enough.”
Given the ultra-competitive nature of managers and pitchers throughout the league, the stakes that will be on the line as the season progresses and the rather haphazard implementation of the new substance-check policy, it’s likely that Manfred will indeed need to address the issue in a public fashion sooner than later. The Scherzer/Girardi saga may have been the first dust-up but surely won’t be the last.