The New York Mets had harbored suspicions about Jay Howell’s use of an illegal substance on the mound since Game 1 of the National League championship series at Dodger Stadium.
The confirmation that Howell had pine tar on his glove, and his ejection in the pivotal eighth inning of New York’s 8-4 victory over the Dodgers in Game 3 Saturday, provided an emotional lift, the Mets acknowledged later.
“Howell is the key guy out of their bullpen, just as (Orel) Hershiser is the key guy in their rotation,” second baseman Wally Backman said.
“Anytime you can get either out of the game, it’s big. You have to feel pumped. Mentally, you have to feel you can do something. And it just makes it that much tougher on them.”
With a cold, wet Shea Stadium crowd of 44,672 chanting, “L.A. cheats!” the pumped Mets scored 5 eighth-inning runs off Howell’s successors, Alejandro Pena and Jesse Orosco, en route to a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series.
Yet with all of that, one renowned Met spoke strongly on Howell’s behalf.
In fact, if National League President Bart Giammati asks Howell to testify, he should take New York first baseman Keith Hernandez with him.
“Fans are going to think Jay Howell is a cheater, and that’s wrong,” Hernandez said. “That’s unfair to Howell and the Dodgers.
“If you cut up a ball with a razor blade or sandpaper to make it dip, that’s cheating. But all you’re doing with pine tar is using it to get a better grip, and that’s not cheating.
“I mean, I know a lot of pitchers who cheat, but I don’t consider Howell one of them. They’ve been doing what he does since 1901. They’re trying to make choirboys out of us.”
Hernandez acknowledged that a rule is a rule, but he said he hopes Howell won’t be suspended.
“If we win or lose against the Dodgers, I want them at full strength,” he said. “We’ve played a 162-game season, and it wouldn’t be fair to lose your No. 1 relief pitcher now.
“If you’re going to suspend him, do it at the start of the season.”
Hernandez seemed to be the only Met willing to discuss the punishment issue.
“I have enough problems of my own,” Manager Dave Johnson said.
It was Johnson who asked plate umpire Joe West to inspect the glove after Howell went to a full count on Kevin McReynolds, the first batter in the eighth inning.
Johnson credited first-base coach Bill Robinson with detecting Howell pulling at the leather strings on the back of his glove. Robinson and some of the Met players said they thought the strings had been darkened by pine tar. Howell contended that the pine tar was on the heel of his glove.
Johnson refused to say whether the Mets waited for the moment when a possible ejection would have greatest impact on the game.
But he did say: “Certain pitchers have certain reputations.”
Said Robinson, somewhat guardedly:
“I saw it Tuesday night (when Howell faced four batters in the ninth inning of Game 1), but we got a couple hits, and frankly I forgot about it until today when I saw it again.
“I turned it over to the proper authority, Mr. Davey Johnson, who made his move at the right time.”
Pena inherited the full count and promptly walked McReynolds, touching off the 5-run rally.
Both McReynolds and Howard Johnson, the next batter, said they knew nothing about any Met plans regarding Howell. But Gary Carter, who had the bloop double off Howell that won Game 1 and who flied out in the eighth inning of this one, said:
“We detected a little something in Los Angeles, but we beat him, so there was no reason to say anything. We got anonymous confirmation (regarding Howell’s use of pine tar) since then.”
Carter added that Dave Johnson wanted to go out before the count went full Saturday, but Carter told him to hold off until they saw Howell pull on the strings “a couple more times.”
“It’s just the kind of thing that can turn the tide,” he said. “The Dodgers are counting on this guy to contain us. Now they have to bring in another relief pitcher who may not have had long enough to warm up.
“It gave us a lift and got the crowd involved.
“You heard what they were chanting. How do you think the Dodgers felt being called cheaters?”
Is that what he considers Howell?
“I don’t blame pitchers for trying to get away with it,” Carter said. “I’ve caught some who do it, though not necessarily here. If they can get away with it for a few years, bless ‘em, but when they’re caught, they have to take the responsibility.
“We knew Howell had a great breaking ball, and this kind of confirms that he had a little help.
“Should it be illegal? Darn right. He’s already got the rosin bag. Why should he be allowed to use an additional substance?
“You saw Hershiser go to his lips and then the rosin bag. That’s all that’s really necessary to improve your grip. Besides, pine tar darkens the ball, and that gives the pitcher even more of an advantage.”
Added Howard Johnson: “Howell always had a good fastball and slider. Now he’s come up with a Hershiser-type curve that we hadn’t seen before Tuesday night. I don’t know if there’s a correlation (with the use of pine tar), but it must have been pretty obvious (for Howell to be ejected).”
The Mets have won both games started by Hershiser, the Dodger ace, and they have their own ace, Dwight Gooden, bidding for a 3-1 series lead tonight.
“To come back and win this game after making the number of mistakes we made early is unbelievable,” Backman said. “We haven’t beat Hershiser, but we’ve got him out of the game twice now. And in this weather, it was important that we didn’t get anyone hurt.”