Nats won’t let Phillies get under their skin, win again (updated)

Let’s get the most important point out of the way first: The Nationals beat the Phillies 3-2 tonight. They’ve now won eight of their last nine, moved into a three-way tie for second place in the National League East and continued a dramatic June surge that is making believers out of more skeptics with each passing day.

Max Scherzer allowed one run in five innings in his first start back from a minor groin injury. The lineup scored three early runs off Zack Wheeler to take the lead. Austin Voth and Brad Hand combined to record 10 big outs in relief sandwiched around a solo homer allowed by Tanner Rainey, with Hand stranding the bases loaded during a harrowing bottom of the ninth to earn his 16th save.

That matters more than anything else, because what’s the point if nobody cares about the actual results of major league ballgames?

“The bottom line is: We went 1-0 today,” manager Davey Martinez said during his postgame Zoom session with reporters, reiterating his favorite mantra. “The boys came out and played. They kept their composure. We finished the game and it was a good win for us.”

Unfortunately, that’s not what most everyone will remember from this series opener in Philadelphia. What everyone will remember - either from watching it live or watching it on endless loop on TV and social media after the fact - will be the sight of Scherzer nearly undressing himself in mocking fashion after Phillies manager Joe Girardi asked umpires to make their third check for foreign substances on the Nationals ace in four innings.

And then they’ll remember Scherzer glaring at Girardi as he departed the field following his fifth and final inning of work, then Girardi coming onto the field and apparently trying to provoke a fight with the Nats before the umpires stepped in and ejected the Philly skipper.

It was the ugly - though, truth be told, probably inevitable - conclusion to the first game either club played under Major League Baseball’s new edict to check for foreign substances on pitchers. And it unsurprisingly provoked even stronger words by the various participants after the fact.

“I’d have to be an absolute fool to actually use something (illegal) tonight, when everybody’s antenna is so far high they’re looking for anything,” Scherzer said.

Wheeler, by virtue of starting for the home team, was first up when he walked off the mound at the end of the top of the first, having his cap, glove and belt examined by the umpires. And when the bottom of the inning ended, Scherzer didn’t hide his disgust for the process, throwing his arms out and rolling his eyes like a frequent flyer who is pulled aside for “additional random screening” by TSA.

Scherzer-Inspected-by-Umpires-Blue-Sidebar.jpgFollowing MLB’s edict, umpires checked both starting pitchers again after the third inning. Then Girardi decided to take matters into his own hands. By asking the umpires to check Scherzer’s hands, along with his cap, glove, belt and anything else that might’ve been covered by a foreign substance during the bottom of the fourth.

Scherzer couldn’t believe it. He dramatically dropped his cap and glove to the ground, then began to unbuckle his belt and might’ve pulled his pants all the way down had second base umpire Alfonso Marquez not intervened and assured the three-time Cy Young Award winner that wouldn’t be necessary.

“Immediately, I spoke with him,” Marquez told a pool reporter. “And I said: ‘Hey, don’t get ejected over this. Let us just do our job and then we’ll be fine.’ “

Martinez, though, was just as upset and barked at the umpires and at his counterpart in the Phillies dugout before returning to his side as the game continued with no foreign substances apparently found and nobody disciplined. For the moment.

“I thought the umpires did a good job with it,” Martinez said. “It’s part of the game now, and they did their due diligence. As far as Joe is concerned, I think he’s got to answer the tough questions about that.”

Girardi, speaking to Philadelphia reporters on Zoom, said he only asked for the third check of Scherzer after watching him run his hands through his hair during the inning in question.

“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 explanation for wiping his head: On an unseasonably cool, 66-degree June evening, he wasn’t sweating anywhere else. And the rosin he was legally using had turned his mouth dry from all the times he licked his fingers.

“I was sick of licking my fingers and tasting rosin all night,” he said. “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.”

Things finally came to a head after Scherzer retired the side in the fifth, striking out J.T. Realmuto with a high 96 mph fastball on his 106th and final pitch of an eventful, if shorter than hoped for, start. As he walked off the mound, Scherzer stared down Girardi, who eventually came out of his dugout and started yelling and gesturing at the Nationals as if ... what, exactly? Was he trying to provoke a fight with them?

Whatever the case, the umpires decided enough was enough and ejected Girardi as the Nats dugout mocked him from afar and Scherzer sarcastically held out his cap and glove one final time.

“That was strictly for his actions of coming onto the field and inciting the other team,” Marquez said of Girardi’s ejection.

All the while, there was an actual ballgame taking place, an important one for two division rivals trying to position themselves as the top challengers to the Mets’ ever-tenuous hold on first place. And throughout it all, the Nationals looked like the better of the two.

Riding the high of their 8-3 homestand, they jumped right on Wheeler in the top of the first for two runs, getting a one-out walk from Trea Turner followed by three straight singles from Juan Soto, Josh Bell and Yan Gomes, the latter two driving in a runner from scoring position.

The Nats would add another run in the third on another RBI single by Gomes, suddenly one of their most productive hitters in clutch situations, which is why he now finds himself regularly batting fifth. And yet, it felt like they could’ve done so much more damage off Wheeler, who needed a whopping 73 pitches to complete three innings and was pulled by Girardi as a result.

“We could’ve scored some more runs, for sure,” Martinez said. “But you’ve got another guy who was pitching for them in Wheeler who’s a tough opponent. After we knocked him out of the game, I thought we’d score some more runs, but ... they kept us there.”

Fortunately, the Nationals starter was more effective, if not quite efficient. Scherzer’s first inning off the injured list began in fine fashion when he struck out the side on 17 pitches. Then things began to get a bit hairy.

Bryce Harper led off the second by turning on an inside cutter and lofting it 431 feet down the right field line for his first homer in eight career plate appearances versus his former teammate. Scherzer would walk two batters later that inning before escaping, then allow a one-out double in the third, then issued another walk shortly after Girardi’s controversial request to check him out in the fourth.

No matter. Scherzer’s command may have been a bit off, and his mind may have been districted for just a moment or two along the way. But he nonetheless departed having allowed only the one run over five innings, putting his team in position to win a game that will be remembered by most for a lot more than the actual result.

Even if anyone who truly cares about the Nationals understands the result ultimately matters more.

“I think we’re starting to play how we think we should,” Turner said. “We should win a lot of games and we’ve got the talent in the room. It’s a matter of executing when we need to and we’ve done that for the last 10-15 games. I think we’re playing good. We just have to keep it going and ride it out as long as possible.”

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