Dodgers' Joe Kelly is close to return but doesn't understand suspension

Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Joe Kelly throws to the plate during the eighth inning.

It’s been more than a month since Major League Baseball handed Joe Kelly an eight-game suspension for sparking a benches-clearing confrontation between the Dodgers and Houston Astros.

The reliever became a folk hero for the fan base before Major League Baseball reduced his ban to five games and he landed on the injured list because of shoulder inflammation. Kelly can’t serve the suspension until he is activated. Until then, he isn’t getting over MLB's initial decision.

“I can't start a suspension so, until that suspension is over, I'll always have a little bit of a grudge against some decisions that were made,” Kelly said. “But, like I said, it is what it is, and we'll have to move on.”

Kelly took another step toward a return when he threw 20 to 25 pitches in a bullpen session Monday. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said the right-hander’s command “was really good” — a marked improvement from his previous session. He said Kelly will throw again Wednesday and should return in time to make a handful of appearances before the postseason.

“If Joe is healthy and he continues to build on his outing [Monday], I see no reason why we can’t get him activated to then serve the suspension to then get him in four or five games,” Roberts said before the Dodgers’ game against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday. “At that point in time, certainly how he is throwing the baseball matters, but again, we’ll know more in time. We’re certainly better with him than without him.”

The Dodgers signed Kelly, 32, to a three-year contract before the 2019 season, so he wasn’t a member of the team that lost to the Astros in the 2017 World Series. But that didn’t stop him from escalating the tension between the two sides by throwing a 3-0 fastball behind Alex Bregman’s head in the teams’ first meeting in July. He later threw an inside curveball to Carlos Correa that the Astros shortstop believed was intentionally close. The benches cleared after Correa struck out to end the inning.

Kelly’s frustration with MLB's disciplinarians grew with their recent handling of Aroldis Chapman. Last week, the New York Yankees' closer fired a 101-mph fastball behind a Tampa Bay Rays batter’s head, escalating heated tension between the clubs. The pitch was widely viewed as intentional. Chapman was suspended three games and appealed.

Like Kelly, Chapman has a history of throwing at hitters. MLB cited that history in suspending Kelly for eight games. Kelly was left wondering where Chapman’s past fit in his disciplinary equation.

“It definitely looks kind of fishy for myself,” Kelly said. “I originally had thoughts on it when I saw the whole Chapman thing. I obviously knew that he was a person and with the language that they used against me is I was a repeat offender. I already had one strike on my record, and Chapman had the same exact thing.

“But, obviously, I probably said a little bit more words than Chapman has said. I don't think the words that I used to the people who make these decisions were very, very nice when the appeal process went down behind closed doors. So, I ruffled some feathers. It just shows that their feelings get hurt just like everyone else's feelings get hurt.”

At this point in the season, the suspension, coupled with Kelly’s stint on the injured list, will limit his in-game repetitions before the playoffs start. He has logged just 6 1/3 innings in seven games this season and hasn’t pitched since Aug. 8.

“It's always been if I'm healthy and I can be as close as I can to 100%, that's usually what takes care of itself,” Kelly said. “I've never been a person who mentally needs to see another hitter in the box if I'm throwing hard and my numbers say everything is good in the bullpen. There's no difference for me when there's a hitter there or not.”

Kelly said he wanted to throw “one more, two more times, max” before coming off the injured list. Wednesday would be the second time. He then could be activated this weekend. The Dodgers’ opponents? The Astros.