LOS ANGELES -- Inflatable gray garbage cans decorated Dodger Stadium on Tuesday night, bouncing along the packed sections of seats as if they were beach balls. A handful of them made their way onto the field of play, as did some of the foul balls hit by the Houston Astros. When a public address announcer threatened ejections for fans hurling objects, the sold-out crowd of 52,692 -- representing the largest contingent at a major league game all year -- lustily booed. Each time Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa came to bat, the crowd booed significantly louder, more vociferously, with the unrelenting intensity one might expect from at least 19 months of pent-up aggression.
The Los Angeles Dodgers ultimately couldn't justify the intensity. They accumulated only five hits against Lance McCullers Jr. and a trio of Astros relievers and lost 3-0 in one of their most anticipated matchups all season -- but the message from their fans resonated nonetheless.
"That was a playoff atmosphere," Astros manager and former Dodgers outfielder Dusty Baker said. "These fans are in love with the Dodgers. I was here, and they indeed bleed Dodger Blue. Boy, it was exciting. It's not often that I would love to play in a game because I'm so far removed from playing, but this is a game I would've enjoyed playing in."
The Dodger Stadium crowd erupted when Mookie Betts, playing second base as part of a precautionary measure against a sore hip, made a full-extension diving catch in the fifth inning. It came to life once more when Walker Buehler stranded a runner and preserved a 1-0 deficit to complete six innings for the 21st time in 22 starts this season. It gasped when Cody Bellinger, struggling through a .165 batting average, lifted a deep drive to center field that resulted in a flyout. It filled the air with a mixture of cheers and boos when Altuve mishandled a flip in the fourth and when he was picked off in the seventh. And it let out a collective sigh when the final out was recorded in the bottom of the ninth.
The Astros improved to an American League-best 65-42, while the Dodgers dropped to 64-44, 3 1/2 games back of the San Francisco Giants for first place in the National League West.
"They sustained the noise, which is a tip of the hat to our fans," Buehler said after lowering his ERA to 2.16. "Obviously there was a few stoppages in the game, just stuff going on the field. We get it. It's an interesting thing because I think the emotion is warranted, and I think there's not a whole lot we're gonna do to change that. But certainly a different atmosphere and different feel than most baseball games."
The Astros' sign-stealing methods during their championship-winning 2017 season -- which involved deciphering catchers' signs through a special monitor and communicating them to hitters by banging on a trash can -- were revealed by The Athletic in November 2019 and confirmed by Major League Baseball's investigation in January 2020. Three acting managers -- A.J. Hinch, Alex Cora and Carlos Beltran -- were fired as a result of it, as was Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow. But the players weren't punished; MLB granted immunity in exchange for their testimony.
Dodgers players, who lost to those Astros in seven World Series games, were outspokenly livid. Their fans shared in the anger, and it wasn't until Tuesday night that they got to fully express it.
The Dodgers played the Astros four times in the ensuing COVID-19-shortened season, but fans were not allowed in the stands. When the two teams faced off earlier this season, Houston's Minute Maid Park served as the backdrop. A large contingent of Dodgers fans showed up for those games in late May. Others waited outside the gates of Dodger Stadium with signs and trash cans and megaphones for the Astros' bus to roll through in September and October of 2020. It was part of the buildup to Tuesday's crescendo.
"The anger is still there, mostly because the players didn't have anything happen to them -- no suspensions, generally a weak fine for the organization because that's all Rob Manfred was allowed to do," said Clint Pasillas, lead editor for Dodgers Nation, a popular site for the team's fans. "And the way the players have handled it -- that just has really antagonized fans, in my opinion, and personally ourselves as well. Altuve, Carlos Correa -- the way they've handled it, the way they've walked around with that bravado as if they did something special when the numbers say you guys didn't."
Pamphlets were handed out to fans at the Dodger Stadium parking lot instructing them on specific anti-Astros chants. Fans wore T-shirts immortalizing Joe Kelly -- the Dodgers reliever who threw near the head of Correa, made a pouty face on his way back to the dugout and became a cult hero because of it -- and calling their opponents the "Trash-stros." Some even dressed as "Oscar the Grouch," the Sesame Street character who famously lives in a garbage can. Hundreds of others waived orange foam asterisks.
The loud boos for Altuve and Correa began as they settled into the batter's box for a round of pregame batting practice, roughly 90 minutes before the first pitch. They continued when they stepped back onto the field to stretch about an hour later and never let up during their combined nine plate appearances.
"It was obviously a lot of booing, but I liked it," said McCullers, one of five current Astros who was on that 2017 team. "I enjoyed it."
But Dodgers catcher Will Smith admitted that Buehler might have been thrown off rhythm by all the stoppages in action when baseballs and trash cans spilled onto the field. Astros reliever Ryne Stanek -- who got the save in the absence of Ryan Pressly, who is on paternity leave -- said fans seated near the right-field bullpen were hurling "basically full beers at people for a half an inning" two-thirds of the way through the game.
The Astros nonetheless persevered. They have been jeered everywhere they have gone this season -- most notably at Yankee Stadium, Dodger Stadium and Angel Stadium, the latter of which saw an actual garbage can make its way onto the warning track -- and still manage to reside in first place.
"It takes a special player to put an Astros jersey on," Astros reliever Blake Taylor said. "If you're not willing to withstand the criticism you're gonna get at every stadium we walk into, you can't handle it -- it's tough. It's tough thing to ask a lot of guys to do. But the crew that we have right now, they're all in on this. They know that they're not the only ones going through this. Every single person in this clubhouse gets booed every time we walk on the field and just gets called 'cheaters' and things like that. So at the end of the day we're just one big family and we have each other's backs, no matter what."