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Pitchers have a sticky situation on their hands, and MLB is cracking down on it. Here’s why

Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was ejected after umpires found a foreign substance on his neck in a 2014 game at Fenway Park — now the league is cracking down on pitchers with greater focus, putting Alex Cora and other managers in a tough position.
Yankees pitcher Michael Pineda was ejected after umpires found a foreign substance on his neck in a 2014 game at Fenway Park — now the league is cracking down on pitchers with greater focus, putting Alex Cora and other managers in a tough position.Elise Amendola

Major League Baseball rule 6.02(c)(5) prohibits a pitcher from applying a foreign substance of any kind to the ball including dirt or saliva.

It’s a longstanding regulation that has been ignored in probably every game you have ever watched or attended.

For years, pitchers have used pine tar or sunscreen to get a better grip on the ball and improve their command. Hitters went along with the idea, believing it cut down on how often they would be hit by a pitch.

Umpires looked the other way and managers rarely asked for the opposing pitcher to be checked, knowing their pitchers were doing the same thing.

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Now rule 6.02(c)(5) has become the topic of conversation in every ballpark as MLB prepares to crack down on pitchers using substances to gain an advantage.

The stickier the substance, the longer the ball stays on the fingertips of the pitcher and the more it spins and moves. Pitchers have weaponized substances, using industrial products and homemade goop to throw pitches that move in ways never seen before.

The recipe for one concoction includes boiled Coca-Cola.

In an interview with NESN’s Tom Caron and Lenny DiNardo, Red Sox outfielder Hunter Renfroe said he put a commonly used substance on his fingers and was able to lift a large hairspray bottle.

“It’s a little bit absurd as far as having some kind of grip,” Renfroe said.

MLB is expected to reveal how it will enforce the rules in the coming days once it completes talks with the Players Association.

A source said yesterday that umpires will be directed to check starting pitchers twice a game and eject them if substances are discovered. That would trigger a 10-game suspension.

It’s part of the effort to bring more offense into a game that has devolved into a series of strikeouts interrupted by occasional home runs.

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Matt Barnes said Wednesday there are multiple reasons why the pitching numbers have improved across MLB in 2021.
Matt Barnes said Wednesday there are multiple reasons why the pitching numbers have improved across MLB in 2021.MARK STOCKWELL FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Red Sox pitcher Matt Barnes, the team’s union representative, said substances aren’t solely to blame for the dominance pitchers have enjoyed this season. He pointed to the increase in defensive shifting and hitters prioritizing home runs and accepting strikeouts as a cost.

“I think there are a number of reasons the game has changed the way it has,” Barnes said.

Barnes is correct. But the prevailing reason is clearly that pitchers have fundamentally improved the ways they can manipulate a baseball and hitters have no way to keep up.

For now, teams are waiting to learn how MLB will proceed.

Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who has first-hand experience with league punishment , expects it will be decisive.

Alex Cora believes MLB will come down hard on the offending parties.
Alex Cora believes MLB will come down hard on the offending parties.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

“MLB does a pretty good job with stuff like this. When they’re all the way in — and I lived it — they’re going to come hard,” Cora said. “It’s going to be black and white. There’s not going to be gray areas in this. We’ll have to wait and see.”

There could be a long-term solution. In Japan and Korea, baseballs are manufactured with a tacky feel and pitchers use them straight out of the box. Major League baseballs are rubbed down with a special mud, but that application isn’t uniform. It varies by which clubhouse attendant gets the job.

MLB is working on using a similar baseball but hasn’t found a version it likes.

For now, Cora and other managers are in a difficult spot as both constituencies are in their clubhouses. He’s also personally in a tough spot as any cheating, real or perceived, will reflect back on him.

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“We’ve been handling it for a while,” said Cora, noting that MLB first started addressing this topic in spring training. “They talk. They talk about the subject. They belong to the same union, right?

“From my end, I know where we stand as an organization. We’re waiting for everything to come here [from MLB] and we’ll give the information to the players. We’re going to provide all the information possible, and the players have to do what they have to do.”

Cora compared the situation to the COVID-19 protocols the players have been following. If a pitcher gets suspended, it’ll hurt the team much in the same way testing positive for the virus would.

“We put ourselves in this situation,” Cora said.


Peter Abraham can be reached at peter.abraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.