Why the Dodgers facing the Astros is still a big deal

UPDATE: Turns out, the bad blood between the two clubs boiled over in the series opener Tuesday night, with some erratic pitches and trash talk involving Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly resulting in a benches-clearing standoff.

Before the coronavirus pandemic turned the world upside down in March, the biggest offseason story in baseball was the fallout from the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal. The Astros' World Series win over the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017 was greatly tainted by an elaborate scheme Houston used that season to tip off batters as to the type of pitch the opposition would be throwing. The backlash, from fans and players alike, was loud and angry -- and the Dodgers had as much to be upset about as anyone.

This week, the teams meet again, facing off Tuesday and Wednesday in Houston. (They also are scheduled to play Sept. 12 and 13 in L.A.) While the vitriol and drama seemingly has been diminished to some degree, it still makes for an intriguing storyline and a juicy matchup between two of baseball's top teams.

We asked some of our baseball writers and reporters the key questions about the series and the emotions involved for both teams.

Why is the Dodgers playing the Astros this week such a big deal?

Alden Gonzalez: Because when Cody Bellinger reported to spring training, he said that Jose Altuve "stole" an MVP from Aaron Judge, that the entire team "stole a ring from us" and that he "lost respect" for the Astros. Because Astros shortstop Carlos Correa fired back and chided Bellinger for speaking recklessly. Because Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen was publicly suspicious about the slider Alex Bregman hit for a home run against him in Game 4 of the 2017 World Series and called sign stealing "worse than steroids." Because Justin Turner was so enraged by Astros owner Jim Crane claiming that his team's sign-stealing practices "didn't impact the game." I have never seen a team so publicly condemn another, and I didn't think I'd see them both on the same field this year.

How much do Dodgers players care about getting to take on Houston?

Gonzalez: Bellinger, who has been more critical of the Astros than anyone, was asked about that recently and basically shrugged it off, saying the scandal "feels like so long ago" and that he's "just excited to play" given the circumstances. Others have expressed similar thoughts. Some -- Astros players and fans, in particular -- would probably scoff at that, noting that the Dodgers talked tough only when it didn't seem as if they would see the Astros all year. Fair, perhaps. But the grim reality of a pandemic and the unorthodox season it has triggered has certainly diluted the fury (and everything else). There's also this point, expressed most frequently by Turner: Nothing the Dodgers do moving forward -- winning a bunch of championships, pounding the Astros into submission -- will erase what they feel like was taken away from them 33 months ago. This series will not heal that.

David Schoenfield: Back before the pandemic turned 2020 into a nightmare, this felt like a much bigger story -- but remember that under the original 162-game schedule, the Astros were scheduled to play the NL East in interleague play, so they wouldn't have played the Dodgers anyway. No matter the hard feelings and frustrations back in January when the commissioner's report led to three managers (Houston's A.J. Hinch, Boston's Alex Cora and the Mets' Carlos Beltran) losing their jobs -- "It's hard to feel like they earned it," Turner said of the Astros -- that feels like a different age. As Alden suggested, you can't rewrite history or heal those old wounds.

Do you think we'll see any on-field retaliation from the Dodgers this week -- or from other teams in general -- against Astros hitters this season?

Bradford Doolittle: I doubt it. There are always hard-core guys out there who can't let go of a grudge. But there are so many extenuating circumstances about this season. Teams have only 60 games to accomplish their goals. Everyone's mind is weighed down by the sword of Damocles that the COVID-19 pandemic has dangling over every day of the season. Fights are just not a smart thing to be engaging in this season, if they ever are. It's not that teams have forgotten or forgiven, it's more that the context of everything that has transmogrified.

Sam Miller: The stakes of play this year -- pandemic protocols that bind the players together in a state of cautious unease -- make it feel a bit sillier to attempt to injure your opponent over some sin three years ago. On the other side of the equation is this: A pitcher can probably bean an Astro without worrying so much about getting charged by the batter or starting a brawl, since brawls require touching and this whole season has NO TOUCHING signs everywhere.

Gonzalez: Ross Stripling entertained that thought during spring training, saying he would "lean toward yes." Alas, Stripling is not scheduled to start for the Dodgers (it will be Walker Buehler followed by Dustin May, two men who were not on the roster for the 2017 World Series). Another starter, Alex Wood, made an astute point when asked about retaliation toward Astros hitters. "Somebody will take it into their own hands, and they'll get suspended more games than any of those guys got for the biggest cheating scandal in 100 years," he said. "It'll be pretty ironic when that happens."

Schoenfield: Hey, after losing the final two games of their four-game series against the lowly Giants, the Dodgers just need to worry about getting a win. Plus, for all the justified anger over the Astros cheating in 2017, don't forget the Dodgers hit just .203 in that World Series. And closer Kenley Jansen, who had a loss and a blown save in a game the Dodgers would lose, was basically just a one-pitch pitcher back then, so the Astros didn't have to steal his signs. In other words, the Dodgers can't just point at the Astros for losing the series. They still had their chances.

How much does playing a season without fans change the fallout for the Astros after an offseason of sign-stealing scandal news?

Doolittle: It has put their anxieties on the same level as everyone else's. As long as they can compartmentalize their social media feeds or, better, ignore them altogether, they can focus on the hollow sounds of fanless games and not the endless jeers and mock banging of trash cans that would surely have marked their season. This lessens the fallout for them, I would think. After this season, surely most of us will have moved on, although some fans won't. Some fans haven't moved on from Pete Rose or Don Denkinger or Fred Merkle, for goodness sake. But the real fallout for the Astros from here is likely the effect the scandal will have in how they are contextualized in the historical landscape.

Miller: The delayed start to the season had already defanged the issue to some extent. A lot of our emotions are activated and deactivated by news cycles, and the news cycle about the Astros mostly expired with COVID-19. That's even more true without any loud booing opportunities this season. As long as the Astros have key personnel from the 2017 club, they'll deal with jokes and criticisms and, eventually, some boos -- I still hear the word Spygate a few times a year, and I don't even follow football -- but 2017 is probably moving into the bookstore's history section.

Gonzalez: Let's put it this way: Originally, because the Dodgers were not scheduled to play the Astros this year, a popular fan group in Los Angeles, Pantone 294, was planning a massive trip 30 miles south to Angel Stadium to ensure that those Astros players were properly booed. Now imagine what the environment would have felt like on Sept. 12, when the Astros are scheduled to visit Dodger Stadium, if we existed in some alternate universe where fans were actually allowed to congregate en masse. It would have been epic. Instead, we'll get a few thousand creepy cardboard cutouts and some low-pitch, computer-generated ambient sound that is almost indistinguishable in person. Boo.

What would the Astros have to do on the field this year to validate themselves beyond the sign-stealing scandal?

Doolittle: Just hit like the Astros. My overriding sentiment about Houston's misdeeds has always been that the most tragic part of their schemes is that they were certainly unnecessary and probably not all that impactful. It was like holding up a bank to get a free tote bag. As long as the hitters perform like they always have, and avoid any unusual career dips over a multiyear span, then their 2017-18 numbers can be accepted at face value.

Schoenfield: Yep. In 2019, when there was apparently nothing amiss going on, the Astros led the AL in batting average, OBP and slugging percentage. By one measurement -- FanGraphs' weighted runs created -- they had the second-best offensive team ever, behind only the 1927 Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig. So, yes, keep hitting and the whispers will go away. Even better, win another World Series.

Miller: Win the division, lead the league in scoring, make the World Series. Here's how I put it this week: "The 2017 Astros were one of the greatest, most talented teams of all time, and they won the World Series. The second half of that sentence will always be tainted. But to some degree, they're still fighting to justify the first half." Bradford, Dave, Alden and I all know that the 2018 and 2019 Astros hit well enough (without trash cans) to prove themselves elite. But it's different when you do it after you've been exposed, and once everybody is paying closer attention.

Gonzalez: Right or wrong, this is a scandal those Astros players will wear for the rest of their careers. I think there will always be a segment of fans who remain skeptical about anything guys like Bregman, Correa, Altuve and George Springer accomplish moving forward, even though they're insanely talented players in their own right and would be crazy to try anything outside the lines ever again. This is their cross to bear.

Would a Dodgers 2020 World Series win be as meaningful as if they had beaten the Astros in 2017?

Doolittle: Given the immense challenge of defeating randomness, surviving a bloated playoff field and warding off the omnipresent threat of the pandemic -- winning a World Series this season will be special for the team that wins it. In this way, my feelings on the topic have evolved. However, there is still an apples-vs.-oranges quality to the season that is inescapable. Clearing the hurdles of 2020 to win it all is special, but it's still a different challenge than the one that a baseball season usually represents. So, will it be as meaningful? Yes, I think it will be. Will it be the same? Not a chance.

Miller: The answer is probably "not even close." That series was a showdown of absolute titans, perhaps the most talent-filled World Series ever played. This year, with its short schedule, no meaningful statistical achievements and teams canceling games amid viral outbreaks, just isn't capable of producing titans. With that said, there are two things that might prove me wrong. One is that the postseason, at four rounds, will test the favorites like no postseason in history has. If the Dodgers "luck" into playing four great teams and vanquish them all, it will make them one of the greatest champions ever, in a unique way. The other is that there is still the slim possibility -- dwindling rapidly, with every positive test in a major league clubhouse -- that this baseball postseason grows into a massive national viewing event, and that the team that wins the World Series occupies a place in cultural lore that baseball hasn't produced since ... maybe the 1950s? But that's unlikely.

Schoenfield: If the Dodgers are the last team standing, you tell Clayton Kershaw his World Series ring isn't meaningful.

Gonzalez: With that in mind, here's what Kershaw said when asked about whether a championship would feel cheapened this year: "I think sitting on the outside, and just listening about 60-game season, how different that is, how a season without fans and all this stuff is gonna look different, it's really true. It's not gonna be like anything we've ever done. But at the same time, we're all going through it on an exact level playing field, and we're all going through the exact same postseason. And so whoever does win after this -- it's gonna be different, it's gonna be a different champion, and you're gonna still be a champion. But to say that there's an asterisk on it or things like that, I don't think is fair. I think there needs to be like a whole different category for what this season is. But at the end of the day, I feel like if you win this season, it's still pretty good no matter what."