Umpire Alex MacKay, right, examines the hand and glove of...

Umpire Alex MacKay, right, examines the hand and glove of Rockies pitcher Chad Kuhl during the fourth inning of the team's spring training game against the Rangers on Saturday in Scottsdale, Ariz. Credit: AP/Ross D. Franklin

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Keep your pants on, pitchers. But make sure those hands are clean.

That’s the new message from Major League Baseball, which began Phase 2 of its crackdown on sticky substances with Saturday’s slate of spring training games.

If you thought the commissioner’s office was satisfied with last season’s policing of goo-related behavior, you’d be wrong. A memo was sent out Friday informing teams that pitchers again will be closely inspected -- effective immediately -- because of evidence that the cheating resumed later in the second half.

 The one wrinkle? Apparently, players won’t have to worry about stripping down on the mound. For the sake of expediency, belts can stay buckled for the most part, as umpires will be instructed to scrutinize the hands for stickiness instead. And if a pitcher attempts to wipe his hand before it can be checked, that will be considered an ejection-worthy offense. 

Among the first test subjects Saturday was Taijuan Walker, who said he learned of the new directive on Twitter before taking the mound against the Nationals. Walker was pulled aside near the third-base line after the first inning and examined by plate umpire Lance Barksdale.

“Looks exactly like what a manicurist does,” SNY’s Ron Darling said on the broadcast.

Better than what happened last season, when the illegal substance ban started to be actively enforced in June. While MLB did alert clubs in spring training that a crackdown could be coming, many pitchers were annoyed when it did occur, including an enraged Max Scherzer, who basically began disrobing after Phillies manager Joe Girardi called for him to be checked out.

Girardi was accused of trying to rattle the hyper-competitive Scherzer, and Friday’s memo carried a provision that will hold managers accountable for “bad-faith” usage of the rule, resulting in ejection and possible further discipline. It’s the umpire’s call whether to honor the request, but with MLB’s renewed attention on the sticky stuff, this creates an opportunity for managers to potentially exploit.

Buck Showalter  now is Scherzer’s manager -- along with another of the game’s elite arms, Jacob deGrom -- so he’ll be on guard for any such tactics attempted against either.

“The [memo] was very specific about that,” Showalter said after Saturday’s 4-2 win over the Nationals at Clover Park. “If someone is using it for blanks and giggles, that ain’t going to fly. Now how do you define that? If I feel like someone is doing that, I’ll certainly let that be known. Whoever it may be, in or out of our division.”

Possible gamesmanship aside, Showalter isn’t surprised that MLB has made this a point of emphasis again, having been made aware of the spin-rate jump in the second half.

“I’m not naive,” he said. “It’s a very competitive business. People are constantly trying to push the envelope. And I saw the same numbers you’re talking about over the course of the season. It’s something you’ve got to be aware of and not put your head in the sand.”     

Last year, only two major-league pitchers were suspended for substance violations: the Mariners’ Hector Santiago and the Diamondbacks’ Caleb Smith as goo was discovered on each of their gloves. That would seem to suggest a limited amount of illegal activity, but MLB believes the opposite was true -- pitchers just got better at cheating later in the season.

“Over the final three months of the 2021 season, umpires were instructed to perform checks periodically throughout the game of starting and relief pitchers on both teams, regardless of whether they suspect a violation of the rules,” Friday’s memo said. “After an initial dip in spin rates as a result of the periodic checks, unfortunately the data showed that spin rates started to rise toward the end of the season as players grew accustomed to the circumstances of routine umpire checks.”

According to the memo, MLB has instructed the umpires to be “more vigilant and unpredictable in the timing and scope of their checks” moving forward. This time the players have been put on notice much earlier than they were a year ago, so it’s not as if the policy is getting sprung on them three months into the season.

That was the biggest complaint from a year ago, but Gerrit Cole said earlier this month that there had been very little discussion about coming up with a new MLB-approved substance -- and no talk since December -- during the prolonged CBA negotiations. As Friday’s memo reiterated, the only legal substance remains the league-endorsed rosin bags, and they cannot be applied to gloves or uniforms or mixed with anything else, like sunscreen.

After a season-threatening labor battle, now may seem like a strange time for MLB to get on the case of pitchers again. But there’s another side to this --  the one the hitters represent. Josh Donaldson spoke up for that group last year when he called out Cole, now his teammate, for allegedly using Spider Tack to dramatically increase his spin rate.

Upon his arrival at Yankees camp this month, Donaldson did not regret singling out Cole, believing that his public statements ultimately led to MLB’s crackdown making a much-needed impact. Evidently, it wasn’t enough, and pitchers now are under the microscope again. Whether they get caught with their pants up remains to be seen. 

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