Clayton Kershaw’s first start at Minute Maid Park since living a nightmare in October 2017 ended Tuesday night with a warm ovation after 7 2/3 brilliant innings in the Dodgers’ 9-2 win over the Houston Astros. He walked off the field satisfied, with his head down, before subtly tipping his cap the to Dodgers faithful populating the hostile territory.
Kershaw’s previous outing between those lines is one he’ll never forget. He gave up six runs and lost two leads over 4 2/3 innings opposite the Astros in Game 5 of the 2017 World Series. He didn’t generate a swing-and-miss with any of his 51 breaking balls. The Dodgers went on to lose in seven games. Two years later, the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme was exposed, placing Kershaw’s struggles in a different light.
Kershaw returned Tuesday to hold the Astros to one run and four hits until he was pulled with two outs in the eighth inning. He threw just 81 pitches. He recorded six strikeouts without a walk. He produced seven whiffs, six with breaking balls.
“I don’t really know how to express it,” Kershaw said. “It did feel like a little more important game, but maybe that’s just because there was a full crowd.”
He wanted to finish the game, but the Astros’ bullpen’s inability to throw strikes and injury delay limited him to 11 pitches over 65 minutes going into the bottom of the eighth. Staying loose became a problem, so Dodgers manager Dave Roberts played it safe.
“For him to come out here and throw the baseball the way he did,” Roberts said, “I’m really happy for him.”
Two other members of the 2017 team gave Kershaw more than enough run support. First, Justin Turner clubbed a two-run home run off former Dodger Zack Greinke in the fourth inning for his first extra-base hit since May 8. Two innings later, Chris Taylor lofted a two-out, two-run bloop single to center field to double the lead as the Dodgers (30-18) collected their eighth win in a row and 12th in 13 games after dropping 15 of 20. The Astros (26-22) have lost four consecutive games.
“Obviously, the history between the two teams doesn’t go unnoticed,” Turner said. “But every game counts the same.”
But if there were any doubts about whether the Dodgers still held a grudge, Turner’s Instagram account provided the answer. Hours before first pitch, he posted a photo of himself at Minute Maid Park standing in front of a trash receptacle with an Astros logo on it. Mookie Betts stood behind him with a smile.
“Comments welcomed!!” the caption read.
Austin Barnes was also on that 2017 team. He tried downplaying the emotions in a videoconference call with reporters before the game. He repeated that it’s in the past and “you just move on.” Yet, he added, “I don’t know if I’ll ever fully get over it.”
The matchup coincidentally doubled as the first game the Dodgers played at a stadium cleared to be filled to maximum capacity since Game 5 of the 2019 NLDS at Dodger Stadium. On Tuesday, 34,443 people crammed into the stands; not quite a sellout of the 41,000-seat venue but more than enough to amplify the intensity.
“It’s just being real,” Dodgers reliever Joe Kelly, who has become the face of the rivalry, said before Tuesday’s game. “People are pretty fake nowadays, so a lot of people that talk [stuff] online wouldn’t do it in person. Usually, they hide behind a computer. Same guy would probably be like, ‘Oh, let me get your autograph.’ But whatever.”
Kelly later relieved Kershaw in the eighth inning, setting the stage for possible fireworks. He was received with a hearty blend of cheers and jeers. But emotions on the field were held in check. Kelly got José Altuve to ground out to third base to end the inning and exited without a pout.
Cody Bellinger played center field and went one for five with a home run on a rehab assignment with triple-A Oklahoma City on Tuesday. Zach McKinstry played left field and went three for four with a walk. Roberts said he expects Bellinger and McKinstry to join the Dodgers this weekend.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.