Padres knock out Mets, advance to NLDS as Joe Musgrove's ears become point of contention

Gabe Lacques

On a night the New York Mets could barely touch Joe Musgrove, the biggest whiff came from Buck Showalter.

Facing elimination in Game 3 of their National League wild card series, the Mets manager ordered umpires to check Musgrove, the San Diego Padres right-hander who’d shut them out for five dominant innings, for foreign substances on his face and equipment. It is a rare act for a manager – rarer still in an era umpires check pitchers’ hands regularly after innings – and took on an air of desperation with the Mets trailing by four runs and their season on life support.

Before the bottom of the sixth could begin, the umpiring crew scoured Musgrove’s face, ears and equipment for sticky substances and found nothing.

Which is exactly what the Mets got off Musgrove.

Musgrove took a perfect game into the fifth inning and pitched seven shutout innings, quieting a Citi Field crowd and sending the faithful home for the winter as San Diego eliminated the Mets, 6-0, on Sunday night.

The Padres will advance to the NL Division Series against the Dodgers, as they did in 2020 before succumbing to L.A. in the bubble-contested playoffs that year. The Mets, who won 101 games but lost the NL East title in the season’s waning days, will go home pondering how to improve on a club that sported a franchise-record payroll that approached $290 million.

Joe Musgrove gestures to the fans as he walks back to the dugout after the sixth inning.

They didn’t go down swinging but rather by commissioning a search party to undress Musgrove, Showalter either believing Musgrove’s elevated spin rate and dominance resulted from foreign substance use – or at least wanting to plant that thought in the Padre’s head.

Either way, he was wrong on both fronts. Umpiring crew chief Alfonso Marquez conducted a relatively intimate check of Musgrove’s face and ears as the pitcher maintained a poker face.

All clean.

"I’ve seen him do it before," Musgrove said of Showalter in a postgame TV interview. "I get it; they’re on their last leg, they’re desperate and it is what it is.

"It motivated me a bit. It fired me up. An opportunity to stick it to them, a little bit."

Musgrove then returned to the business of dominating the Mets, granting them just one harmless single and a walk in his seven innings. After pitching a scoreless sixth, he couldn’t resist wiping sweat/something from under his nose while glancing at the Mets’ dugout. He later tugged on his ear, driving the point home further.

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Musgrove made history himself, becoming the first pitcher in playoff history to complete seven shutout innings with less than two hits in a winner-take-all game. His resentment toward Showalter is rooted in decades of baseball protocol, in which demanding a substance check is considered questionable gamesmanship, unless a team has been tipped to a player’s abuse. The practice did not gain steam even as the use of so-called “sticky stuff” grew in prevalence and aided in pitchers’ spin rate, velocity and movement.

When Major League Baseball announced that in June 2021 it would begin checking pitchers after at least their first inning of work, spin rates declined across the game. And just one manager – then-Phillies skipper Joe Girardi – demanded an extra on-field check when he asked umps to check then-Nationals starter Max Scherzer, who grew indignant at Girardi after umps ran their hands through his thinning mane.

Showalter seemed to telegraph his intentions, noting in a pregame production meeting with ESPN’s broadcast crew that Musgrove’s spin rates had increased. His numbers in Sunday’s Game 3 were elevated, as well, although possibly not beyond what the adrenaline of a high-stakes game might produce.

Showalter said he felt "kind of bad about" casting aspersions on Musgrove, but that the club was "privy" to spiking spin rate averages and that he's "charged with doing what's best for the New York Mets. If it makes me look however it makes me look, I'm going to do it every time and live with the consequences."

Said Padres manager Bob Melvin: "Joe Musgrove is a man of character. Questioning his character is what bothers me. The reception he got after that was not warranted. I just want everybody to know he’s a high-character individual."

Showalter should have known he wasn’t checking a young buck; Musgrove pitched the lone no-hitter in Padres history and appeared in far higher-stakes games, most notably earning the win in relief in Game 5 of the 2017 World Series, a 13-12 thriller that keyed the Houston Astros’ seven-game conquest of the Dodgers.

Sunday night, Musgrove came up even cleaner and now, the San Diego native will be slated to start a Game 4 at Petco Park against the Dodgers.

And Showalter’s tactics will be remembered ignominiously – not the sheen around Musgrove’s ears.