Joe Kelly makes faces and mocks Astros in Dodgers’ win

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 3-0 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 out his tongue at Correa. He mocked him with a pout. He sprinkled obscenities around the faces.

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.

The sequence was a reminder that Dodgers weren’t going to let the Astros’ cheating in 2017 slide. It was the team’s first visit to Houston since Game 5 of the 2017 World Series and the clubs’ first meeting since the scandal was uncovered over the offseason and became top storyline in spring training before the novel coronavirus 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 Divisional Series. His fate, he apparently decided, was also impacted by the Astros banging on trash cans to relay pitches to hitters.

The only banging heard Tuesday came from the music’s overamplified bass thumping through the empty dome. The Crawford Boxes beyond the left-field wall contained fan cutouts. There was a group of people clapping here and there for the Astros below the press box, but the atmosphere was light years from the intensity 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. The virus forced MLB to truncate and regionalize the schedule.

Back then, way back 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.

The last five months’ events didn’t deaden the Dodgers’ hard feelings. The Dodgers arrived in Houston with the Astros’ transgressions on their mind, even if they were located somewhere behind avoiding a virus outbreak on their first road trip and weren’t going to admit it in awkward Zoom calls with the media. On Monday, Joc Pederson posted a photo of the Dodgers getting off the plane on his Instagram Story. The caption? “Bangggg.”

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)

Both Pederson and manager Dave Roberts admitted feelings surfaced when they walked into Minute Maid Park and saw the Astros. Roberts said he still believes the 2017 World Series would’ve gone differently had the Astros not cheated.
“The history obviously is out there,” Pederson said. “Everyone knows what’s at stake and what happened. So, for being no fans and sometimes maybe the energy can be lacking a little bit, I don’t think that will be the case for this series.”

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. They followed through on the discipline for five-and-a-half innings.

Walker Buehler didn’t bean any Astros in his 2020 debut. The only lukewarm interaction occurred as he walked off the mound after retiring Bregman to end the first inning. The two exchanged words. That was it.

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.

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 escalate a rivalry.

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