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Joe Kelly doesn’t back down to Astros as benches clear in Dodgers’ win

Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly, center, exchanges words with Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa.
Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly, center, exchanges words with Houston Astros shortstop Carlos Correa while walking back to the dugout after the sixth inning during the Dodgers’ 5-2 win Tuesday.
(David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

The first clue underscoring the animosity between the Dodgers and the Houston Astros didn’t surface until the bottom of the sixth inning Tuesday night.

The Dodgers were up three runs en route to a 5-2 victory at Minute Maid Park. The bases were empty. Alex Bregman had worked a 3-and-0 count against Dodgers right-hander Joe Kelly. The scene didn’t scream tension. But Kelly abruptly reminded the Astros of his club’s feelings with a 96-mph fastball behind Bregman’s head. Bregman calmly looked away, bent over to remove his ankle guard, and took his base without a word. Kelly then yawned.

The next close call wasn’t disregarded. Three batters later, with runners on first and second and two outs, Kelly hurled an 87-mph curveball that narrowly missed Carlos Correa’s head. The ball bounced away and the runners advanced. It was ruled a wild pitch. Correa stared at Kelly.

The at-bat ended with Correa swinging through a curveball for strike three. He and Kelly exchanged words as Kelly walked off the field. Kelly stuck his tongue out at Correa. He mocked him with a pout. He sprinkled obscenities around the faces.

“I don’t remember the words,” Kelly said. “Was a kind of in-the-moment type thing. I guess my expression was what I interpreted in my head what he was saying.”

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Then, finally, the benches and bullpens cleared when an angry Correa continued approaching the Dodgers dugout. Social distancing was forgotten. Masks were optional. The unlawful gathering lasted about a minute. Only words and droplets were exchanged.

“Balls get away sometimes, but not that many in the big leagues,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “When you throw a 3-0 fastball over a guy’s head, now you’re flirting with ending his career. A couple other guys, the balls were close. What really enraged everybody is when he told Carlos when he struck him out: ‘Nice swing, ....’

“You don’t throw at a guy’s head. That’s playing dirty baseball.”

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The sequence was a reminder that the Dodgers weren’t going to let the Astros’ cheating in 2017 slide during the clubs’ first meeting since the scandal was uncovered over the offseason and became a top story line in spring training before the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down Major League Baseball.

Kelly wasn’t on the 2017 Dodgers team that fell to Houston in seven games in the World Series. But he was on the Boston Red Sox club that had lost to the Astros in the American League Division Series. But Kelly insisted he wasn’t throwing at Bregman or Correa because the Astros banged on trash cans to relay pitches to hitters in 2017.

“My accuracy isn’t the best,” Kelly said, referencing the viral video of him throwing a ball through a window at his home in April.

The only banging heard Tuesday came from the music’s overamplified bass thumping through the empty dome. The atmosphere was light years from the fervor the event would’ve produced in the world everyone is itching to see again. It was dull.
Then again, the teams wouldn’t have met if COVID-19 hadn’t forced MLB to suspend operations for nearly four months. Originally, the only chance to face each other was in the World Series.

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In February, the Dodgers reported to spring training fuming. They wanted to loudly make the point that the Astros crossed the line when they cheated in 2017. They felt it was their responsibility to make sure the behavior wasn’t normalized.

Benches empty out after Joe Kelly's exchange with Carlos Correa in the sixth inning.
Dodgers and Astros players run onto the field following an exchange between Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly and Houston shortstop Carlos Correa on Tuesday.
(Bob Levey / Getty Images)

The last five months’ events didn’t alleviate the Dodgers’ hard feelings. They arrived in Houston with the Astros’ transgressions on their mind, even if they were located somewhere behind avoiding a virus outbreak on their first trip and weren’t going to admit it in awkward videoconference calls with the media.

“Even before the game, there was a quiet focus, determination in the clubhouse,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who again insisted the Dodgers would’ve won the championship in 2017 if the Astros hadn’t cheated. “It was different. Obviously, it was probably the opponent.”

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But the Dodgers insisted they would hold their emotions in check. Winning trumped retaliation, especially in a shortened season, and they didn’t want to hurt their chances. The discipline lasted 51/2 innings.

Walker Buehler didn’t escalate matters in his 2020 debut. The only tension bubbled as he walked off the mound after retiring Bregman to end the first inning. The two exchanged words. That was it.

Joe Kelly released the months of pent-up rage the Dodgers and their fans have been feeling ever since MLB found the Houston Astros cheated in 2017.

Buehler’s focus was on pitching as deep as he could after being built up to just four innings during training camp. The right-hander retired 11 of the first 12 batters he faced. His only costly mistake during the stretch was a slider he hung to Correa. The ball became a souvenir for the cutouts in left field.

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But he encountered trouble with two outs again in the fourth inning. First, Michael Brantley singled. Then Yuli Gurriel walked. Then Correa pounced on a cutter for an RBI single to center field. The knock doubled the Astros’ lead and ended Buehler’s night. He threw 56 pitches, walked one, and struck out three across 3 2/3 innings.

The Dodgers roared back with five runs in the fifth inning after scoring four in their previous 21 frames. They capitalized on an error, a bases-loaded walk, and RBI singles from Justin Turner and Cody Bellinger.

The wattage was enough to sustain a lead. Kelly provided more to intensify a rivalry.

Three observations from the Dodgers on Tuesday:

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1. Big inning: The Dodgers scored their five runs in the fifth inning efficiently with five hits, two walks, and a batter reaching on a fielder’s choice over nine plate appearances.

2. Rookie Scrubb: Astros right-hander Andre Scrubb logged 2 2/3 scoreless innings in his major-league debut. The Dodgers traded Scrubb to Houston last season for first baseman Tyler White.

3. Wood shelved: Alex Wood was placed on the injured list Tuesday with shoulder inflammation, dealing another blow to the Dodgers’ starting rotation. He joins Clayton Kershaw, who was placed on the injured list with back stiffness on opening day.


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