The last time Clayton Kershaw pitched at Minute Maid Park, in Game 5 of the 2017 World Series, he was decidedly unlike himself. He blew two big leads, was charged with six runs before the end of the fifth inning and generated just one whiff on 51 breaking balls.
Twenty-six months later, an investigation by Major League Baseball confirmed that the 2017 Houston Astros engaged in illegal sign-stealing methods that extended throughout the postseason, a revelation that left many to wonder how that season -- and, to a larger extent, Kershaw's legacy -- might have evolved differently if not for cheating.
Kershaw made his first appearance against the Astros since that fateful series on Tuesday night, pitching in a visiting ballpark that was opening at full capacity for the first time, and dominated, allowing only one run in 7⅔ innings while leading the Los Angeles Dodgers to a 9-2 victory, the team's eighth in a row. He was later asked if the circumstances triggered extra motivation.
"It's a hard one to answer," Kershaw said. "I was kinda thinking about it, just like what it felt like being there tonight, pitching again after the World Series in 2017. I don't know. I don't really know how to express it. It did feel like a little more like an important game, but maybe it was just because it was a full crowd."
The Astros announced an attendance of 34,443, making it the first full stadium the Dodgers have played in since October 2019. It seemed as if nearly half of the spectators were Dodger fans, many of whom traveled from Southern California as part of a fan group. Astros manager Dusty Baker, whose team has now lost four straight, spotted some of them on his way into the ballpark earlier and predicted that there would be "a lot of electricity in the building," a sentiment that held up.
"It was really special to see that many Dodger fans out there," Kershaw said. "Everything that happened in the past has affected them just like it's affected us. You can feel it in the way they cheer and the way they go about it."
The Dodgers lost to the Astros in seven World Series games in 2017. Two years later, Mike Fiers revealed to The Athletic that the Astros, a team he pitched for that season, established a system to decode and communicate the opposing catcher's signs in real time, watching from a monitor and then banging on a trash can to let their hitters know when an off-speed pitch was coming. A follow-up investigation from MLB confirmed Fiers' accounting in January 2020, prompting a string of punishments that ultimately led to the firing of general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch.
Astros players, however, were not punished, an inconsistency that the Dodgers passionately spoke out against in the wake of the report. When the Dodgers played against the Astros again on July 28, 2020, during the first week of a shortened season, Joe Kelly threw behind Alex Bregman and threw a couple of other pitches inside to Carlos Correa, prompting both benches to clear and Kelly to eventually get hit with an eight-game suspension that was reduced to five.
The Dodgers were playing the Astros in an empty stadium then, and now all the seats are occupied.
The eeriness persists.
"It'll always be something weird there," Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes said before Tuesday's game. "Those games were important to us, obviously. I know it's a while ago, but I don't know, there's something weird there. It's different coming back. You just wanna beat these guys."
Easily the most memorable game from that series was Game 5, the last one from Houston, when Kershaw blew a four-run lead in the fourth and a three-run lead in the fifth. The Dodgers scored three times in the ninth to tie the game, but the Astros ultimately won it on Bregman's walk-off single against Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen in the 10th to take a 3-2 series lead. Three nights later, the Astros won it all.
There was a time, Barnes said, when he kept thinking back to certain at-bats from that game. Some, he added, "didn't make sense to me."
"But that was a long time ago," Barnes said. "I don't really look back anymore at that too much."
Winning the World Series in 2020, and ending a drought that extended to 32 years, helped.
"You're not gonna change what happened in 2017," Kershaw said, "but 2020 definitely helped alleviate some of those feelings."
Kershaw, matching up against former teammate Zack Greinke, needed only 76 pitches to get through seven innings, allowing only a solo home run to Bregman. The Dodgers led 5-1, then tacked on three more runs in a long top of the eighth to pull away. Kershaw came back out for the bottom half and recorded a regular-season out in the eighth inning for the first time since July 2018. After getting Martin Maldonado to ground into a double play, he made way for Kelly, which sent Minute Maid Park into a frenzy. Four outs later, the Dodgers had their 12th win in 13 games.
"They all mean the same," Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said when asked if beating the Astros in that venue, with that atmosphere, took on added significance. "Obviously the history between the two teams doesn't go unnoticed, but they all mean the same."
Turner is one of nine current Dodgers who was on that 2017 team, but the two biggest villains in this rivalry are two men who weren't -- Kelly and Trevor Bauer, who has been among the most outspoken against the Astros in recent years and will start on Wednesday.
The Dodgers will play only a two-game series in Houston, then host the Astros for a two-game series Aug. 3-4, by which point Dodger Stadium is also expected to be at full capacity. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts expects the latter series to be "exponentially crazy." He was asked when he thinks baseball fans will move on from the Astros' scandal.
"I don't know," Roberts said. "The world doesn't really appreciate cheating."