There’s not a whole lot a baseball manager can do to directly affect the course of a game when his team is losing in the latter innings. A pinch-hitter won’t get you four runs back, and smart bullpen management can only keep the deficit from growing larger. I imagine it’s a desperate place to be, particularly when the game in question will send one team home and the other to the next round of the playoffs. Mets manager Buck Showalter found himself in that helpless zone as his players trailed the Padres 4-0 in the sixth inning of Game 3 of the Wild Card round, which perhaps explains why he asked the umpires to halt the game and rub some ears.
After five innings of watching Padres starter Joe Musgrove throw one-hit ball and prevent the Mets from even making much solid contact at plate, Showalter decided that something needed to be done. As Musgrove was warming up before the bottom of the sixth, Showalter walked onto the field, convened with the umpires, and asked them to check Musgrove for any foreign substances. That led to a surreal scene, in which several umpires gathered in front of Musgrove, checked his glove, his hat, and his … ears?
OK, so here’s the thing: Musgrove’s ears were particularly shiny, so much so that increasingly grumpy Mets fans who were watching the game at home kept bringing it up on Twitter. I wonder how it must feel to be this guy, who tweeted at the official Mets Twitter account about Musgrove’s ears shortly before Showalter went out to demand the check. Maybe sometimes it actually pays off to say something when you see something?
As much as I’d like to believe that Showalter made a desperate gambit on national TV because of what some guys on Twitter were yammering about, it’s much more likely that he and the Mets’ dugout were monitoring the spin rates on Musgrove’s pitches, which were noticeably up from his season averages.
We know from the recent crackdown on sticky stuff that the primary function of foreign substances is to increase spin rate, but does that really explain what was going on with Musgrove on Sunday night? He was also throwing a bit harder than usual, which would naturally lead to a higher spin rate, and it’s not at all out of the realm of possibility that he was throwing harder simply because he was jacked up about pitching in an elimination game.
Showalter was asked about the ear-check incident after the game, and while mumbling through a somewhat repentant answer, he indicated that it was indeed Musgrove’s spin rates that raised alarms for him: “Without getting into a lot of things, you know, the spin rates and different things that I’m sure you’re all aware of … I get a lot of information in the dugout. We certainly weren’t having much luck with the way it was going, that’s for sure.”
And how did Musgrove feel about it? Well, he spent the next six outs after the check looking towards the Mets dugout and channeling Kenny Powers.
“It almost just lit a fire under me,” Musgrove said during his remarkably gracious postgame press conference (I would have been standing on the table, spraying champagne, and yelling, “I got your sticky stuff right here, Buck!”), though he did manage to talk a little shit once he got on ESPN later in the night:
There’s that word again: desperate. Perhaps Showalter deserves credit for accepting the fact that desperate is all anyone can be when trailing by four runs headed into the sixth inning of an elimination game, but he probably should have spent more time considering the opportunity cost of his dice-roll. If Musgrove did have sticky stuff on his ears and was kicked out of the game? Great, you’re still down four runs. And if he’s doing nothing nefarious, as the umpires concluded? Well now you’re A) inviting Musgrove to reach for another level just to further humiliate you and B) essentially telling your own players, Gee, sorry guys, I guess it’s not any sticky stuff that’s preventing you from putting a barrel on the ball. I guess it’s just because you suck! Musgrove breezed through the next two innings, and the Mets looked increasingly meek as the game inched towards its conclusion.
And yet the question remains: Why were Musgrove’s ears so damn shiny? Andrew McCutchen theorized that he had slathered his ears in something called Red Hot, a pain-relief balm that would create a burning sensation on Musgrove’s ears meant to keep him focused (baseball players are psychotic). Musgrove shot down that theory after the game, though, telling reporters that it was nothing more than sweat making his ears glisten in the night. “I’m sweating my ass off out there,” he said.
So there you have it. Joe Musgrove is not a cheater. He’s just a Wet Guy.