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Dodgers relief pitcher Joe Kelly looks back at Houston’s Carlos Correa after the sixth inning Tuesday in Houston. Both benches emptied during the exchange. David J. Phillip/Associated Press

 

Even during a coronavirus pandemic in which social distancing is advised, a grudge is still a grudge, as the Los Angeles Dodgers showed Tuesday night when they played the Houston Astros.

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Umpire Chris Guccione, right, talks to Houston Manager Dusty Baker after both benches emptied onto the field after the sixth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday. David J. Phillip/Associated Press

They were playing the Houston Astros, the team they believe stole the 2017 World Series from them and one whose cheating scandal came to light over the offseason. There was always going to be simmering, lingering animosity and it erupted into a brawl in the sixth inning as the two teams played for the first time this year. Players mixed it up, exchanging comments and droplets rather than swings. Some wore masks, some urged social distancing from one another – either because of the pandemic or because it’s what baseball players do when they fight.

The Dodgers were leading by three runs in the bottom of the sixth inning and Alex Bregman had worked a 3-0 count against Dodgers right-hander Joe Kelly when Kelly fired a 96-mph fastball behind Bregman’s head. Bregman reacted calmly and took first base. Three batters later, with runners at first and second and two outs, Kelly’s 87-mph curveball narrowly missed Carlos Correa’s head with a wild pitch and the runners advanced. Correa glared at Kelly, then struck out swinging. As Kelly walked off the field, he mocked Correa and the two exchanged pleasantries. Kelly stuck his tongue out at Correa and mocked him while uttering obscenities, including calling him a bad word.

And with that, it was on – pandemic be damned. Benches and bullpens emptied as Correa headed for the Dodgers’ dugout. The whole thing ended quickly after some heated words and the Dodgers won, 5-2.

“Balls get away sometimes, but not that many in the big leagues,” Astros Manager Dusty Baker said (via the Los Angeles Times’ Jorge Castillo). “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, (expletive)’ …

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

Kelly said he didn’t remember what he said, calling his reaction a “kind of in-the-moment type thing” and admitting that, with no fans there, “you hear stuff.”

Never mind that Kelly wasn’t on the 2017 Dodgers team that still feels it was robbed in a seven-game World Series. The Dodgers bear the hurt as a group and, when spring training began, there were questions about how they and other teams would approach the Astros. Because of the pandemic, we have an answer. MLB reworked schedules when the season was compressed to 60 games and the teams suddenly were scheduled to face one another in the new, regular season. Previously they had been scheduled to face one another only in a World Series.

The Astros’ system for using electronics to steal signs, long an open secret in baseball, came into full public view last November, when former pitcher Mike Fiers wrote about it in the Athletic. An MLB investigation resulted in the suspension and firing of General Manager Jeff Luhnow and Manager A.J. Hinchs.

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