At the end of a frustrating -- and, as it turned out, controversial -- night at the ballpark, the Nationals find themselves in something of a sticky situation.
And that has nothing to do with the pine tar found on Rays reliever Joel Peralta's glove before the bottom of the eighth inning on Tuesday, though that violation of the baseball rule book became the primary topic of discussion inside both clubhouses.
No, of greater importance to the Nationals right now is what to do with the one weak link in their otherwise dominant rotation. After watching Chien-Ming Wang struggle yet again through 3 13 laborious innings -- the No. 1 culprit in his team's 5-4 loss to Tampa Bay -- manager Davey Johnson couldn't definitively say whether the veteran right-hander will remain as his fifth starter.
"I know how good he can be," Johnson said. "My job is to try to get everybody doing the things they're capable of doing. That's my job. If I thought he could get better out of the bullpen or starting, that would come into the decision. I'm not going to make a decision right after a rough outing."
If Johnson was giving any thought to removing Wang from the rotation and going back to Ross Detwiler, the latter certainly made as strong a case for himself as possible coming out of the bullpen and keeping this game close.
Summoned in the bottom of the fourth to bail out Wang, Detwiler wound up tossing 3 23 innings of scoreless, hitless relief. He retired 11 of 12 batters faced, the lone exception Carlos Pena (who was hit by a pitch in the seventh).
In six total appearances since he was sent to the bullpen to open a starting spot for Wang, Detwiler now boasts a 1.35 ERA and only seven hits allowed over 13 13 innings. The 26-year-old left insists, however, he's not thinking about a possible move back to the rotation.
"I am where I am right now," Detwiler said. "I've got to get comfortable with that, and that's the only way I'm going to throw well. I know farther down the road, there's a good chance I'll be back, whether it be next year or whenever it will be. But I think I'm starting to get comfortable down in the bullpen."
As comfortable as Detwiler has looked in the bullpen, Wang has looked anything but comfortable since joining the rotation three weeks ago. He's now made four starts and failed to complete six innings in any of them, compiling a 6.62 ERA while putting an astounding 40 men on base over 17 23 innings.
The problem, the Nationals believe, is mechanical. Wang has been "rushing" through his throwing motion, with his right arm lagging behind the rest of his body.
"His arm strength is back, but he's still trying to do too much and not getting in position to locate the ball well," Johnson said. "That was his problem."
"I think overall my arm still feels good, and actually today I could feel on top of the ball, on my finger," Wang said. "But I just couldn't locate the ball very well today."
When Wang departed the game in the fourth, the Nationals trailed 5-2. Thanks to Detwiler's dominance and then a two-run homer from Michael Morse (his first of the season) in the sixth, they reduced the deficit to one.
But the Nationals didn't put another man on base after Morse's blast, unable to get anything going late against Rays starter David Price or three relievers. Er, make that two relievers, because Peralta (though he officially appeared in the game) never actually threw a pitch.
The 36-year-old right-hander was a popular member of the Nationals' bullpen in 2010, and he pitched well, posting a 2.02 ERA in 39 games. Over the winter, though, the organization made the somewhat strange decision not to tender him a contract.
Before Tuesday's game, Johnson saw Peralta on the field in a Tampa Bay uniform and rhetorically asked why the Nationals let him get away.
"One thing led to another," the manager said, "and I got probably more information than I really needed."
Without offering up specifics, or revealing who specifically told him, Johnson said there had been "some chirping" about Peralta using pine tar in his glove. So when Rays manager Joe Maddon summoned for his setup man before the bottom of the eighth, Johnson emerged from his dugout and asked plate umpire Tim Tschida to check the pitcher's glove.
And what did Tschida find in the glove?
"It was a significant amount of pine tar," the veteran umpire told a pool reporter.
Thus, the glove was confiscated and Peralta was immediately ejected, per Rule 8.02(a), which states that a pitcher may not "apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball." Peralta also now is subject to a mandatory suspension.
Maddon was incensed by Johnson's request to check the glove.
"It's kind of a common practice that people have done this for years, and to point one guy out because he had pitched here a couple years ago there probably was some common knowledge based on that," the Rays manager said. "And so I thought it was a real cowardly ... it was kind of a wuss move to go out there and to that under those circumstances. I like the word wuss move right there."
When the top of the ninth arrived, Maddon had Tschida check Nationals reliever Ryan Mattheus' glove and hat. The umpire found nothing. Mattheus couldn't help but smile.
"I'm not going to take it personal," the right-hander said. "It's gamesmanship. We did it to them. I'm sure they wanted to make sure that we weren't at an unfair advantage with something sticky in our gloves and stuff like that. I didn't take it as an insult at all."
Who was it that tipped Johnson off about Peralta's penchant for pine tar use? No one inside the Nationals' clubhouse was saying, and members of the bullpen uniformly had nothing but positive things to say about their former teammate.
"I played with Joel in 2009 with the Rockies and he's a great, great guy," Mattheusa said. "Standup guy. I don't think he's out there cheating, trying to get over on us or anything like that. But it's unfortunate."
Though such ejections for foreign substances are rare, this wasn't the first time it happened to a pitcher facing the Nationals.
On June 14, 2005 in Anaheim, outfielder Jose Guillen (who played for the Angels the previous year) told manager Frank Robinson that reliever Brendan Donnelly used pine tar on his glove. Robinson got Donnelly ejected from that game, setting off a bench-clearing incident between the two clubs that featured the 69-year-old Robinson and Angels manager Mike Scioscia going toe-to-toe.
Scioscia's bench coach that night: Joe Maddon. One of the umpires who confiscated Donnelly's glove: Tim Tschida.
"This one was a lot calmer," Tschida said. "The managers both kept their cool. The one in Anaheim, I had to separate Scioscia and Frank Robinson."
There was no extracurricular activity Tuesday night, but surely both sides and the umpiring crew will be watching for any residual issues the rest of this series. Wednesday night's scheduled starters: Stephen Strasburg and Chris Archer, making his big-league debut.
Perhaps the best indication of what might still come was uttered by Maddon at the end of his postgame media session, clearly upset with his counterpart in the other dugout.
Said Maddon: "Before you start throwing rocks, understand where you live."