It’s not that you didn’t expect it to happen, but no matter how you feel about the Houston Astros and their extralegal electronic cheating you merely hoped it might not happen. Even if Tuesday night was the first time the Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers met since that now-tainted 2017 World Series.
They weren’t expected to meet again unless they might tangle in another World Series. Then, the coronavirus world tour happened. When the Show returned at last, the pandemic and its mandate for extraordinary health and safety protocols prompted its governors to sketch regional scheduling featuring the Dodgers and the Astros in Houston this week, in Los Angeles come September.
You might think things are tough enough playing coronaball (reference, especially, the afflicted and drydocked-for-now Miami Marlnis) without the Dodgers having to face the team now believed to have cheated their way to that World Series title.
You might think things were tough enough without other Astro opponents still thinking in the backs of their minds that the Astros need to be taught a few little lessons in manners and in accepting responsibility in the sometimes-forgotten Astrogate wake.
You might have thought so until Joe Kelly relieved fellow Dodger reliever Brustar Graterol for the bottom of the sixth in Minute Maid Park Tuesday night.
With one out, Kelly had Houston third baseman Alex Bregman 3-0 when he decided ball four should be a fastball sailing up and past Bregman’s shoulders. The next batter, outfielder Michael Brantley, forced Bregman at second on a ground ball but made a point of stepping on Kelly’s foot as the pitcher covered first base on the play.
Kelly lingered just a little bit near the base after Brantley’s step-on and a voice was heard in the empty ballpark. It may or may not have been Astros manager Dusty Baker, but it hollered, “Get back on the mound, [maternal fornicator].” Kelly did return and go back to work.
Known to be erratic at times, and un-allergic to brushback pitches when he thinks they’re mandated, Kelly walked Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel on four straight pitches, then opened to Astros shortstop Carlos Correa with a breaking ball behind Correa’s head and all the way to the backstop.
Officially, of course, it was ruled a wild pitch. Unofficially, even the cardboard cutouts in the otherwise empty stands knew good and bloody well that Kelly wanted to remind the Astros once again that it wasn’t nice to set up a furtive closed-circuit, off-field-based television network for stealing opposing pitch signs and think they could get away with it.
Commissioner Rob Manfred helped them think they could get away with it. Foolishly or otherwise, Manfred handed all Astro players immunity from discipline in return for spilling about the Astro Intelligence Agency after former Astro/current Oakland Athletics pitcher Mike Fiers finally blew the whistle on the AIA to The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich last November.
The AIA cost three managers (the Astros’ A.J. Hinch and two 2017 Astros-turned managers, Alex Cora in Boston, Carlos Beltran in New York, before he had a chance to manager even one Mets game) and one general manager (the Astros’ Jeff Luhnow) their jobs. (Any thought of Hinch possibly returning for 2021 was vapourised when the Astros exercised Baker’s 2021 club option.)
Astros owner Jim Crane was asked for no accountability beyond being fined for what amounts to maybe a year’s worth of tip money for him. Called upon to stand when spring training opened, Crane and assorted Astros players weren’t exactly apologetic for the AIA’s operations. Numerous opposing players fumed that, one way or the other, they’d find ways to administer justice, and no official edict was going to stop them.
After Kelly struck Correa out swinging for the side, with a couple of more inside pitches in the mix, Correa was distinctly and, apparently, vocally unamused as Kelly walked off the mound and crossed the third base line to his dugout. Prompting Kelly to shoot a couple of mock crybaby faces and choice words Correa’s way.
That may have been the specific flash point under which both benches emptied and milled around the plate area. They forgot some of the social distance protocols, meaning a fine or three might be forthcoming. The dispute was bark, no bite, unless the Astros and the Dodgers were willing to dissipate the tension with some six-feet-apart pantomime boxing, but neither side was in the mood for comedy.
Baker was quoted by USA Today‘s Bob Nightengale thus: “What really enraged everybody was what he told Carlos when he struck him out, ‘Nice swing bitch!”’ Not nice. Send the message, sure. Taunt them no matter what they did or didn’t jaw your way, not so fast. Naturally, one of the Twitterpated couldn’t resist defending Kelly’s taunts thus: “Should have said something along the lines of ‘hard to hit when you don’t know what’s coming’.”
The warnings were handed to both sides after the second Correa duster. Perhaps naturally, Kelly said of the Bregman shoulder kisser, post-game, “It was a ball, obviously. It wasn’t my best pitch. Ball four, I walked him, never good to put a guy on when you’re leading the game.”
Of the breakers bending Correa, he said, “I guess he didn’t take too kind to a curve ball [inside]. It is what it is. I finally made one good pitch for the punchout . . . I pitch competitively, but with the no fans here it’s easy to hear some stuff.”
You stick to that story, son.
Some observers seemed to think, too, that the Astros were more infuriated by the buzzer off Bregman’s shoulders than the two breakers dusting the otherwise non-entertained Correa. For his own part, Bregman merely shrugged it off when Kelly’s heat ricocheted off his shoulders and took his base. Almost as if he was well enough prepared for the incoming messages Tuesday and yet to come.
“The history obviously is out there,” said outfielder Joc Pederson before the series began. “Everybody knows what’s at stake and what happened. For being no fans, maybe sometimes the energy could be lacking a little bit. I don’t think that will be the case for this series.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean Pederson urged or condoned any message from any Dodger pitcher to any Astro hitter. Nor does it mean the Astros went into the game expecting nothing more than balls, strikes, hits, and outs, considering the jawing between the two teams before spring training was cut off at the coronavirus pass.
Recall: Dodger center fielder Cody Bellinger saying the Astros cheated for longer than affirmed and that their second baseman Jose Altuve stole the 2017 American League Most Valuable Player award from New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge. Recall, too: Correa rejoining that Bellinger thus spoke recklessly.
Just don’t kid yourselves that the Astros forgot for even a moment that a brushback or a knockdown was liable to come from any arm, at any time, in any game, no matter how much it seemed the pandemic pushed the long toxins of Astrogate to one side.
Until Tuesday night, only Gurriel and Correa were hit by pitches, both in the second game of the truncated season, at home against the Seattle Mariners. Until Kelly decided to lay down the law, however, all anyone thinking clearly probably thought was that the Astros were so thoroughly roasted in the immediate public Astrogate wake that throwing brushback or knockdown pitches would be as foolish as it would be unnecessary.
Like the Rogue Sox and their 2018 Replay Room Reconnaissance Ring, the Astro Intelligence Agency wear the stain of their extralegal cheating all season long, however long the season, whenever the season began. There but for the lack of grace of the coronavirus would fans and commentators alike remind both teams, good and strong, that crossing the proper gamesmanship line is filthy pool.
Only three Rogue Sox have been plunked on the truncated season thus far. But don’t fool yourself that they’re immune to thoughts that a little extra payback might be coming, too. It may not be quite as pronounced as any the Asterisks face, since they merely used what was available, predicated it with a man on base to transmit the pilfered intelligence, and didn’t install an illegal camera to begin their dirty work.
Baker himself seemed more enraged at the Kelly bullet that almost grazed the back of Bregman’s shoulders. “You don’t throw at a guy’s head,” the manager said. “That’s playing dirty baseball.” Baker’s in the unenviable position of having to help his team past the Astrogate mess he wasn’t part or parcel of, but what would he call the AIA—good clean baseball?
Kelly wasn’t a Dodger when the AIA’s espionage operated. But he was one of the 2017 Red Sox downed by the Astros in the American League division series and the 2018 Red Sox who beat the Astros in that ALCS. You bear in mind that neither Astro nor Red Sox pitchers were co-operators of those teams’ Spy vs. Spy operations.
Kelly was also the hapless Dodger who served the pitch Washington Nationals second baseman Howie Kendrick destroyed for a tie-breaking, Dodger-burying, National League division series-winning grand slam in the Game Five top of the tenth. The last thing he needed even in abbreviated spring training was his Dodgers and the Astros getting into an Astrogate-inspired jawing contest.
Otherwise, Kelly was a pitcher in need of some kind of redemption, any kind of redemption in the eyes of Dodger fans in Los Angeles and elsewhere. The taunts were more than a little out of line. Perhaps Kelly didn’t need to send more than one brushback Correa’s way, but those weren’t half as juvenile. Well, boys will be boys, even in a time of pandemic.
Still, somewhere in that fan base they’ll remember the Dodgers beat the Astros, 5-2, to open this series, but it’ll be a by-the-way remembrance. One that has to be rushed into the conversations, swiftly, amidst the hot take that Kelly made himself something nobody in Los Angeles thought he’d become to Dodger fans after last October. A hero.