Major League Baseball had started checking pitchers for “sticky stuff”1 the night before the June 22, 2021, game at Citizen Bank Park.2 It was an unseasonably cool evening in Philadelphia, 66 degrees and falling at game time with 15 percent humidity.
These two seemingly unrelated facts – a league policy change and the weather – led to Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer nearly undressing on the mound and Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi’s ejection for unsportsmanlike conduct. There was also an exciting baseball game, decided in the ninth with the potential winning run in scoring position.
The new MLB protocol, announced on June 15,3 was that the umpires were to check each starting pitcher’s cap, fingertips, and glove at random intervals, but typically at the end of an inning to avoid interrupting the game.4
In their first series under the new policy, the Nationals visited Philadelphia for a two-game set with their division rivals. The Nationals (33-36) were tied for third place in the NL East, 5½ games behind the Mets. Philadelphia (34-35) was only a game ahead of Washington.
Philadelphia’s Zach Wheeler (5-3, 2.15 ERA) started the game by striking out Kyle Schwarber, who had hit five home runs in his past two games and won NL Player of the Week honors for the previous week.5 Wheeler walked Trea Turner, who took a good lead off first, making it easy for him to take third on Juan Soto’s bloop single. Josh Bell followed with another single, scoring Turner. Yan Gomes hit a third consecutive single, scoring Soto. Wheeler got the next two outs to strand two on base with the score 2-0, Nationals.
Scherzer (5-4, 2.21 ERA) was coming back from a minor groin strain and a 10-day stay on the injured list.6 He didn’t look rusty – he struck out Odúbel Herrera, Rhys Hoskins, and J.T. Realmuto in the first. Scherzer was inspected at the end of the inning, looking as thrilled as an airplane passenger selected for “TSA additional random screening.” Whether or not Scherzer had been using anything besides rosin before the crackdown is an open question,7 but the spin rate on his pitches didn’t seem to be affected significantly.8
Wheeler had no trouble with the bottom of the Nationals order in the top of the second – three outs on nine pitches.
The Phillies got on the board in the second when Bryce Harper, in his third season in Philadelphia after leaving the Nationals for a 13-year, $330 million contract in 2018, homered into the second deck. Scherzer walked Andrew McCutchen and Brad Miller on full counts, but worked through the bottom of the order to quash the rally, striking out Alec Bohm, retiring Ronald Torreyes on a windblown foul out, and fanning Wheeler, the best-hitting9 Phillies pitcher.
The Nationals added a run in the third in another long inning for Wheeler. Soto hit a one-out single and stole second on catcher Realmuto’s bad throw. Gomes’s soft grounder up the middle scored Soto.
Washington threatened to expand the lead when Starlin Castro doubled off the wall, and Wheeler hit Josh Harrison on the arm to load the bases, but Victor Robles grounded to third to end the inning. Bailey Falter, who had started warming up in the Phillies’ bullpen in the first inning, got up again, with Wheeler’s pitch count already at 73. The umpires checked Wheeler’s cap and gloves after the inning, as they had after the first.
All Scherzer allowed in the bottom of the third was a double to Hoskins. That was Hoskins’ first hit off Scherzer – he had been 0-for-21 to that point in his career. Scherzer’s cap and glove were checked again by umpire Alfonso Márquez.
Falter took over from Wheeler in the fourth. All he allowed was a long single by Schwarber.
The intrigue started before the first pitch in the bottom of the fourth. According to the Phillies’ broadcasters, umpires Tim Timmons and Márquez had stood on the first-base line to watch Scherzer warm up.
McCutchen grounded to third but reached safely when Castro dropped the ball while transferring it from his glove to his throwing hand. Scherzer’s fourth pitch to Bohm was a high and tight fastball so Bohm hit the dirt – hard. When Bohm struck out swinging on the sixth pitch, he slammed his bat in frustration.
With one on, one out, and Miller up, Girardi went to the umpires to request a mid-inning check of Scherzer. Once Scherzer realized what was happening, he threw his cap on the field, dropped his glove, unbuckled his belt and began to drop his pants – but Márquez stopped him.
Scherzer yelled, “I got nothing! Nothing!” Márquez had to run his hands through Scherzer’s sweaty hair, with manager Davey Martinez standing by defending his player – and sniping at Girardi, who was standing on the top step of his dugout.
Finding nothing but sweat (with Scherzer yelling, “It’s just sweat!” “I got sweat!”), the umpires walked Martinez back to the Nationals dugout for further discussion. Eventually the umpires returned to their positions and Scherzer returned to pitching. Perhaps distracted by the inspection he walked Miller, but then retired Torreyes and pinch-hitter Travis Jankowski to get out of the inning.
The Phillies’ third pitcher, Connor Brogdon, worked another “nine pitches for three outs” inning.
After Herrera grounded out to start the bottom of the fifth, Scherzer had a long battle with Hoskins, during which he removed his cap and ran his own hands through his hair. He finally got the out on the 10th pitch – first baseman Bell made a sliding catch of a foul with the ball squeezed in the webbing of his glove. After striking out Realmuto to end the inning, he walked back to his dugout, silently glaring at Girardi.
A few seconds later, Girardi walked toward the Nationals’ dugout yelling, “C’mon!” Timmons firmly turned Girardi around before he got there, steering him back to his dugout as he ejected him for “unsportsmanlike conduct.”10 In the Nationals dugout, Scherzer was waving his cap and glove, heading back up the dugout steps, yelling, “I’m clean!” Martinez was calmly blocking the dugout steps, but he was about the only person in the dugout not yelling in Girardi’s general direction.11
So what happened? In their own words:
Girardi: “I’ve seen Max a long time, since 2010,” Girardi said. “Obviously, he’s going to be a Hall of Famer. But I’ve never seen him wipe his head like he was doing tonight ever. … It was suspicious for me. … I didn’t mean to offend anyone. I’ve just got to do what’s right for our club.”
Scherzer’s response: “I was sick of licking my fingers and tasting rosin all night. I couldn’t even get sweat from the back of my head because it wasn’t a warm night. So the only part that was sweaty on me was actually my hair. So I had to take off my hat to be able to get some type of moisture on my hand to try to mix with the rosin. For me, that’s the confusing part. I’m just trying to get a grip on the ball. You can watch the previous at-bat, the ball slipped out of my hand and I almost drilled somebody in the face.”12
Conclusion: Blame the weather.
The bullpens – Austin Voth for the Nationals and Ranger Suárez and Archie Bradley for the Phillies – kept the score 3-1 until the Phillies pulled one run closer in the eighth on Hoskins’ one-out homer off Tanner Rainey.
Rainey struck out Realmuto, but with lefty Harper coming up, Martinez called on his lefty closer, Brad Hand. The move did not pay immediate dividends as Harper singled, but Hand struck out McCutchen looking to end the inning.
The Phillies’ sixth and final pitcher was José Alvarado. Two strikeouts and a groundout and his team was back in the dugout, ready to try for a walk-off victory.
Bohm opened the ninth with a double off Hand; he remained at second on Miller’s fly out to center. Torreyes was grazed by a pitch. Pinch-hitter Matt Vierling hit a slow roller past the mound that shortstop Turner couldn’t handle, loading the bases with one out.
The crowd was standing and cheering – even a single could be a walk-off win. Herrera hit a fly to short left – Turner and Harrison couldn’t hear each other and collided, but Harrison hung onto the ball for the second out. Hoskins worked the count full but hit the sixth pitch to Turner, who threw to first in time, sealing the Nationals’ win.
After this game and the Mets’ loss to Atlanta, there was a three-way tie for second in the NL East. It didn’t stay that way – the Nationals faded badly in July and traded away several players at the trade deadline,13 ultimately finishing last in the division. The Phillies finished second, 6½ games behind World Series winner Atlanta.
As for the sticky-stuff checks? They continued – as did the related controversies.14
This article was fact-checked by Bruce Slutsky and copy-edited by Len Levin.
In addition to the Sources cited in the Notes, the author consulted the Baseball-Reference.com and Retrosheet.org websites for pertinent material and the box scores noted below, and viewed the recorded Nationals and Phillies’ TV broadcasts on MLB.com.
A composite video of the umpires’ checks and the aftermath is available at youtube.com/watch?v=s0bbCn5E8iU.
1 Pitchers had been using various sticky substances to increase the spin rate on their pitches, leading to a perceived decrease in offense. Emma Baccellieri, “Five Takeaways One Month Into Sticky-Stuff Enforcement,” si.com, July 21, 2021. si.com/mlb/2021/07/21/sticky-stuff-crackdown-one-month-the-opener. Retrieved February 3, 2022.
2 Stephen Hawkins, “Searching for Sticky Stuff: MLB Umps Start Checking Pitchers,” abcnews.com, June 21, 2021. abcnews.go.com/Sports/wireStory/searching-sticky-stuff-mlb-umps-start-checking-pitchers-78410632. Retrieved February 3, 2022.
3 Anthony Castrovince, “New Guidance on Foreign Substances Announced,” MLB.com, June 15, 2021, https://www.mlb.com/news/mlb-announces-new-guidance-to-deter-use-of-foreign-substances.
4 Relievers would be checked at the end of their first inning or end of their relief appearance. Anthony Castrovince, “FAQ: Sticky Stuff and New Rule Enforcement,” MLB.com, June 21, 2021. mlb.com/news/faq-sticky-stuff-and-new-rule-enforcement. Retrieved February 3, 2022.
5 June 14-20, Schwarber hit six home runs with a .385 batting average and 1.077 slugging mark.
6 He had not made a rehab start in the minors. Mark Zuckerman, “Nats Won’t let Phillies Get under Their Skin, Win Again,” masn.com, June 22, 2021. masnsports.com/nationals-pastime/2021/06/nats-wont-let-phillies-get-under-their-skin-win-again.html. Retrieved February 5, 2022.
7 Former Angels clubbie Bubba Harkins released texts indicating that Scherzer was using his “sticky stuff.” Ernesto Cova, “Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole, Justin Verlander among Aces Using ‘Sticky Stuff,’ Leaked Texts Show,” bolavip.com, June 16, 2021. bolavip.com/en/mlb/gerrit-cole-max-scherzer-justin-verlander-sticky-stuff-leaked-texts-20210615-0004.html. Retrieved February 9, 2022.
8 Chelsea Janes, Andrew Ba Tran, Elyse Samuels, Dalton Bennett, Sarah Cahlan, and Daron Taylor, “How Baseball’s War on Sticky Stuff Is Already Changing the Game,” washingtonpost.com, July 2, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2021/07/02/sticky-stuff-baseball-data/. Retrieved February 9, 2022.
9 His batting average was .200 entering this game, finishing at .162 for the season, close to his career .153.
10 This was Girardi’s 40th managerial ejection, but his first for unsportsmanlike conduct.
11 Nationals coach Kevin Long and Girardi had worked together for the Yankees. Girardi may have been responding to some unprintable language directed at him by Long. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IdJVTCDp4J0 for analysis by Jomboy Media. Retrieved February 5, 2022.
13 See Steven C. Weiner, “July 18, 2021: Alcides Escobar caps Nationals comeback with homer and walk-off single,” SABR Baseball Games Project. After the trading deadline passed, the Nationals’ major-league roster would be without Schwarber, Scherzer, Gomes, Harrison, Jon Lester, Daniel Hudson, and Hand.
14 Jesse Rogers, “Chicago White Sox’s Lance Lynn Ejected after Tossing Belt at Umpires during Foreign-substance Check,” espn.com, August 19, 2021. https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/32048044/chicago-white-sox-lance-lynn-ejected-tossing-belt-umpires-foreign-substance-check. Retrieved February 6, 2022. Jesse Rogers, “Tampa Bay Rays’ Tyler Glasnow Blames MLB Crackdown on Foreign Substances for His UCL Injury,” espn.com, June 15, 2021. https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/31639015/tampa-bay-rays-say-ace-right-hander-tyler-glasnow-partially-torn-ucl-flexor-tendon-strain. Retrieved February 6, 2022.