TORONTO — Did you catch Max Scherzer’s reactions to his first experiences with the new foreign-substance checks, including one initiated at the request of Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi?
Give the Washington Nationals superstar an Emmy. And if this is your first time seeing this, you’re welcome.
Also not impressed, Oakland Athletics reliever Sergio Romo.
In contrast, Ross Stripling and the Toronto Blue Jays’ first turns through Major League Baseball’s mandatory inspections of all pitchers as part of new enforcement efforts to curb the use of so-called sticky stuff by pitchers, were far more chill.
Stripling was met by home-plate umpire Laz Diaz and first-base umpire Mike Estabrook as he headed toward the dugout following his first inning of work in Tuesday’s 2-1 victory over the host Miami Marlins, quietly offered up his hat and glove and pulled his belt forward.
There were a couple of smiles as acting manager John Schneider joined the group for a peek at the process, and that was that.
“Kind of lucky to have an off-day (Monday) where we get to see the likes of (Yu) Darvish and (Jacob) deGrom get checked and kind of what it looked like, so I knew what to expect coming out of that first inning,” Stripling said of the experience. “I mean, before I was even over to the umpire I had my hat and my glove off and just like basically shoved it in his face. They kept it light-hearted. None of them really said anything specific, like, we don’t want to do this or sorry, we’re doing this or we are going to do this or anything like that. It was just like, ‘All right, looks good Strip,’ and that was it.
“They kept it light-hearted and quick and easy, but you get a feel for what they’re looking at. They’re looking in the hat, the glove, they can touch your hands, look at your hands, feel your hands, feel your belt. Some guys made some jokes that if you took a still picture, it looked the umpires were trying to look down my pants, which is kind of funny. I might make a meme or two out of that.”
The reactions to MLB’s measures by Scherzer and Romo demonstrate the undercurrent of frustration at the stringent mid-stream application by MLB of rules long ignored.
What began as pitchers’ search for more tack — sunscreen and rosin was the mix of choice for a long time — increasingly became more high-tech as the understanding of spin and its correlation with quality pitches led to the search for stickier substances to better manipulate the baseball.
In announcing the new crackdown, commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement stricter enforcement was needed to “level the playing field.”
“It has become clear that the use of foreign substance has generally morphed from trying to get a better grip on the ball into something else — an unfair competitive advantage that is creating a lack of action and an uneven playing field,” he said. “This is not about any individual player or club, or placing blame, it is about a collective shift that has changed the game and needs to be addressed. We have a responsibility to our fans and the generational talent competing on the field to eliminate these substances and improve the game.”
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There are reasonable questions about how fair it is to force pitchers to adapt nearly three months into a season when the use of foreign substances had been tacitly accepted for years.
Tampa Bay Rays right-hander Tyler Glasnow, for instance, recently attributed his elbow injury to gripping the ball tighter without sticky stuff.
The counterargument is that the rosin bag is on the mound for a reason and that rules long on the books are simply being enforced. But adjusting during the off-season in conjunction with the players association seems like a sounder approach, but that’s tougher to accomplish when relations between the parties are troublingly strained.
For his part, Stripling said he’s “made adjustments,” due to the new inspections but added, “it’s not a big change. I’m not worried about it moving forward.”
The six innings of two-hit, one-run, seven-strikeout ball he threw Tuesday suggest that, as the right-hander extended an impressive rebound since adjusting his mechanics after the Boston Red Sox roughed him up May 19.
Over his last six starts, he’s allowed only nine earned runs on 21 hits and nine walks with 36 strikeouts in 35.1 innings. His OPS against is only .530 and he has allowed only four homers after giving up three alone to the Red Sox during that fateful start in Dunedin last month.
It’s without a doubt his best stretch since joining the Blue Jays, and comparable to the way he performed during his all-star season of 2018 with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I think it’s just the confidence,” said Stripling. “Back in 2018, I was having success and you snowball more confidence as you have good outings and you build off those. And I was having a hard time over the last year-plus in building confidence because I wasn’t having success. Now you rattle off a couple good outings and you start feeling like you belong here, can get guys out here and have all that stuff that you might start lacking mentally when you’re struggling.”
That the foreign-substance checks didn’t throw Stripling off is important, as the stability he’s given the rotation over the past month has been a pivotal development for the Blue Jays.
“The awkward one is when the closer comes in with the lead in the ninth inning and before you get going, you’re getting everything checked,” said Schneider. “That’s the only one that kind of stands out, like it’s a little bit weird. But we’ll see how it goes. It’s probably going to be hopefully a little bit of feel by the umpires if a guy gives up a five-spot, they’re not going to check him after that inning or whatever it may be. First time for us, first time for everyone. Basically, it was a little bit weird, but you kind of make adjustments, you roll with it.”
Stripling had a similar outlook.
“It is what it is,” he said of the new enforcement. “The fact that we’re basically two days through the games and no one’s been caught, I think that goes to show you what pitchers are doing. They’re taking it serious and they’re either going to be really sneaky with it or they’re not going to risk it. Me personally, I didn’t risk it, and I’m not going to moving forward. But it’s starting to get a feel for what it looks like at least. We’ll see how it shakes out over the next couple of weeks as umpires either keep being that diligent, more diligent, less diligent, whatever. We’ll see.”
This party started in the bubble 11 months ago with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki putting in a playoff performance Marc Bergevin said would make them pieces he could build the Montreal Canadiens around for 10 to 15 years.
This party is now getting out of hand thanks to those two kids and a couple of veteran centres who have filled a decades-long gap the Canadiens have had at the position.
The greatest evidence of it came in Game 5 of this Stanley Cup semifinal with Kotkaniemi opening the scoring, and Suzuki closing it out to secure a 4-1 win over the Vegas Golden Knights and send the Canadiens back to the Bell Centre within one win of their first Final since 1993. It was Kotkaniemi’s ninth goal in his 25th playoff game and Suzuki finished with points 18, 19 and 20 in his 26th.
They are 20 and 21 years old, respectively, but they are wise beyond their years.
“I think last year everyone made comments of, ‘Are we too inexperienced in the middle?’ and I think they proved them wrong then,” said Canadiens stand-in coach Luke Richardson, “and now they’re a year older with that experience from last year’s bubble playing in the playoffs to this year — I think it’s really showing.
“I know they’re young, but they had that first-time experience winning a short series and then (they were) really competitive against a good, strong Philadelphia team. So, this year I think it’s translated. They’re a year older, they’re competitive guys, they’re used to winning coming from their junior teams, so they have that fire. And they’re showing some real good maturity.”
But this isn’t a two-man show. This is just as much about what Phillip Danault is doing in these playoffs, and just as much about 36-year-old Eric Staal turning back the clock to when he was an elite centreman raising the Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes.
On Tuesday, Danault was on the ice for just his second goal against at 5-on-5 since Game 4 of the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs. He has matched up against Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, against the Winnipeg Jets’ Mark Schiefele, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyler Connor and Blake Wheeler, and he has dismantled Golden Knights centres Chandler Stephenson, William Karlsson, Nicolas Roy and Alex Tuch. He’s also a key piece on the Canadiens’ penalty kill, which in successfully eliminating two Vegas opportunities in Game 5 has now gone 28 consecutive times without surrendering a goal.
This game was iced with Staal jumping off the bench, wriggling his way to the high slot and burying a perfect pass from Suzuki to make it 2-0 6:32 into the second period. And if you want a sense for how this centre line has helped vault these Canadiens back to prominence, look no further than what Staal said about that play when he was asked about how Suzuki set it up.
“Not only was Nick’s pass phenomenal and a great look to me, but Phil earlier in the shift took a big hit to make a play to get it out of our end and then changed, and I was the beneficiary of being in the right spot,” he said of his eighth point of these playoffs. “All those little plays add up, they’re huge, and you love to see that kind of stuff as a group because it keeps building our guys closer together.”
Three centres producing the biggest goal the Canadiens have scored in these playoffs…
If you’re a lifelong fan who’s old enough to remember when Vincent Damphousse, Guy Carbonneau and Kirk Muller helped the team win its 24th Cup, the lack of depth at centre is at the heart of why it’s taken so long for the team to get back here. Look at what the Canadiens have there now.
Don’t forget that Jake Evans, who was among Montreal’s most effective forwards before Scheifele charged and concussed him in Game 1 of the second round, is working his way back to health. The former seventh-round pick, who spent four years at Notre Dame and then went to Joel Bouchard’s AHL school for centres, is well on his way to becoming an excellent two-way pivot.
Ryan Poehling, who’s in his sophomore season at Bouchard University, isn’t far behind.
That he’s down the pecking order, though, has everything to do with Suzuki and Kotkaniemi progressing as fast as they have.
The Finn, drafted third overall in 2018 before debuting as the youngest player in the NHL, is proving he’s as resilient as he is skilled. He had an impressive first year, with 11 goals and 34 points in a sheltered role, and lost his confidence in Year 2 before regaining it in Laval and showing up as a much better player in the Toronto bubble.
Kotkaniemi didn’t let the ups and downs of this season get to him, either.
He may have only had five goals and 20 points in 56 games, been scratched to start the playoffs and in a tough position on the winning goal by Roy in Game 4 to send this series back to Vegas tied 2-2, but he started and finished the play that got the Canadiens a 1-0 lead in Game 5. It was his fifth goal of these playoffs.
“He’s been playing great hockey,” said Suzuki, with Kotkaniemi sitting right beside him. “He was a little disappointed he didn’t get to start the playoffs against the Leafs, but the way he’s handled that has been great. Playing a big role for us, so it’s nice that he gets rewarded with that goal for us. So, I know he’s going to keep going.”
No question Suzuki will, too.
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Bergevin labelled him the key piece in the deal that also brought Tomas Tatar and a 2019 second-round pick to Montreal from Vegas when Max Pacioretty was traded to the Golden Knights in the fall of 2018. He’s done nothing but prove it ever since, with 28 goals and 82 points over his first 127 regular-season games in the NHL and nine goals and 11 assists in his limited playoff time.
“I think he’s super competitive,” said Staal. “Like a lot of the guys on our team, it’s the compete level that is really, really high. Obviously, the skillset is there, the intelligence is there, but you need to have that extra compete and that level of competitiveness to make differences like he has been. So that’s the No. 1 thing I love about him and all these guys is our compete and our willingness to do whatever it takes.”
That’s obvious throughout the Canadiens’ lineup, but most evident up the gut of it.
The kids have done their part, Danault has been an incarnation of Carbonneau and Staal has been so much better than the Canadiens could’ve hoped he’d be when they traded a couple of middling picks to pluck him out of Buffalo ahead of this year’s trade deadline. He’s been a completely different player from the one who had three goals and 10 points with the Sabres before withering with two goals and three points in his first 21 games with the Canadiens.
Meanwhile, Staal wouldn’t be here if Bergevin hadn’t recognized what he had in Kotkaniemi and Suzuki during last year’s playoffs. Neither would Jake Allen, Joel Edmundson, Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson, Corey Perry, Jon Merrill and Erik Gustaffson. The GM finished second in the voting for the Jim Gregory Award for GM of the Year, but he if he got the most first-place votes, it might have been for that realization alone.
And the Canadiens are hoping to celebrate Quebec’s Saint-Jean Baptiste Day by booking their trip to the Final, and they’ll be depending on Danault and Staal once again, and leaning heavily on Kotkaniemi and Suzuki.
“These kids are great players and huge parts of our group and our team,” said Staal. “Hopefully they can follow it up with a big one in Game 6 at home.”