Phillies manager Joe Girardi jumped right into the middle of baseball’s biggest controversy of 2021 and he has no regrets for it.
Girardi suspected Washington ace Max Scherzer of cheating Tuesday night and that set off a series of events that led to the two men staring each other down, lots of angry words being shouted between the two dugouts and ultimately ended with Girardi being ejected.
“I've seen Max a long time, since 2010,” Girardi said after his team’s 3-2 loss. “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.”
Girardi ran his fingers across the top of his head.
“(He was) going like this, so it was suspicious for me," Girardi said. "He did it about four or five times. It was suspicious. I didn't mean to offend anyone. I just have to do what's right for our club.”
Major League Baseball began a crackdown on pitchers applying foreign substances to baseballs on Monday. Pitchers are subject to random checks by umpires and are subject to a 10-game suspension if found doctoring a ball.
Scherzer was randomly checked after the first and third innings and appeared mildly annoyed both times. Girardi asked the umpires to check him again with one out in the fourth.
Girardi was asked if Scherzer had a reputation for doctoring the ball, or if he’d been given a heads-up that the right-hander was applying a foreign substance to the ball.
“No,” Girardi said. “I didn't have any heads-up. But, again, I've seen Max pitch a long time. And I've never seen him do that. That's why I did it.”
Girardi's challenge angered Scherzer, who dramatically dropped his glove and hat on the ground and unbuckled his belt as umpires approached him for inspection. No foreign substances were found on his person.
During the inspection, Scherzer eyeballed Girardi in the Phillies’ dugout and ran his right hand through his hair as if to say he was clean.
After the game, umpire crew chief Alfonso Marquez said Girardi made a specific request to check Scherzer’s hair.
“We thought it was a legitimate request just based on the actions on the mound by the pitcher, so we thought it was a good request to go check him,” Marquez said.
Though outwardly irked by the challenge, it didn’t affect Scherzer’s performance. He pitched out of trouble in the fourth on his way to five innings of one-run ball and his 13th career win over the Phillies.
An inning later, Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young winner, continued to be annoyed by Girardi’s challenge. After striking out J.T. Realmuto to end the fifth, Scherzer marched back to his dugout and stared at Girardi the whole way. The Phillies skipper reacted angrily, climbed the dugout steps, made his way onto the field, giving the Nationals’ dugout the ol’ bring it on gesture.
After the game, Girardi said he was motioning to some of the Nationals coaches. One of those men, pitching coach Jim Hickey, appeared to mock Girardi.
“I wasn't challenging their club,” Girardi said. “There were some coaches that were screaming at me. Coaches that I know. And it bothered me, right? I mean, I'm not playing games. I'm trying to win games here. I'm not playing games. I have respect for the other people over there. I have respect for what Max has done in his career. Again, I have to do what's right for our team.”
Scherzer was asked how it felt to essentially be called a cheater by the opposing manager.
"I don't know. These are Manfred rules,” he said, referring to commissioner Rob Manfred, engineer of the crackdown on foreign substances. “Go ask him what he wants to do with this. I've said enough. Go ask Alec Bohm how he feels about 95 at his face. I don't need to say anything more about this."
Moments before Girardi asked the umpires to check Scherzer, the pitcher nearly hit Bohm with a pitch that was up and in. On an unseasonably cool night, Scherzer said he had trouble gripping the ball. Pitchers are permitted to lick their fingers and use the rosin bag or their own perspiration to gain a better grip.
“I was sick of licking my fingers and tasting rosin the whole night,” Scherzer said. “I couldn't even get sweat from the back of my head because it wasn't a warm night. For me, the only part that was sweaty on me was actually my hair, so I had to take off my hat to try 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 of the ball, and even watching the previous at-bat, the ball slipped out of my hand and I almost drilled somebody in the face.”
Martinez refused to get into a war of words with Girardi.
“As far as Joe's concerned, I think he's got to answer the tough questions about that,” Martinez said. “I don't need to answer that. The bottom line is, we kept our composure and came away victorious. There was no sticky stuff, let’s just say that. The umpires checked and everything was good. Like I said, I think Joe's got to answer the tough questions tonight."
It remains to be seen whether Girardi’s action will lead to his pitchers, starting with Vince Velasquez on Wednesday, being held to higher scrutiny by opposing managers.
“If it does, it does, I don't worry about that,” Girardi said. “I don't worry about our guys because I know what our guys do. So, I'm not worried about that. They can if they want. That's fine.”
Phillies pitcher Zack Wheeler was randomly checked twice by the umpires. He was not bothered by it.
“I can only speak for myself,” Wheeler said. “I couldn’t really care less. I’m not using anything, so …”
One game into the great crackdown on illegal substances and, already, all this.
“Unfortunately, this is a part of our game now,” Rhys Hoskins said. “It’s unfortunate that pitchers are all kind of getting lumped together because there are some guys in the league that decide to take it too far. But this is what we have to do now, at least for this year. We’ve just got to deal with it.”