Kevin Kiermaier and the Tampa Bay Rays have fought furiously in 2020 for their Premier League title in more than a decade, securing home ground advantage throughout the AL playoffs.
In the end, that meant little more than the last few hits and a more comfortable clubhouse in San Diego.
The defending AL champions are back as the top seed in the league, anticipating a few more miles and a lot more adrenaline. Also, this time the fan noise will be real.
“It’s going to be a lot different from last year,” said Kiermaier, a defensive ace in the outfield. “And obviously for the best.”
Baseball’s playoffs are returning to their pre-pandemic format a year after COVID-19 confined most of last October’s stock to empty stadiums at neutral venues. It’s a welcome change for players who made it through last year’s playoffs providing their own energy on a stage normally fueled by the buzz created by the live audience.
“It’s still the playoffs, you’re still playing for something,” Yankees star Aaron Judge said. “But having the fans will take it from 10 to 12.”
MLB expanded the playoff field after the truncated 2020 regular season for more equity and additional TV revenue, inviting 16 teams to the playoff tournament instead of the standard 10. Three-game Wild Card streaks were held at the top seed’s local stadiums ahead of the winners. shipped for Division series games from the neutral site to Texas and California.
The World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers spent more than three weeks in a baseball bubble around Arlington, Texas for the Division Series, Championship Series and World Series at Rangers’ Globe Life Field.
The Rays were only slightly more traveled, playing their ALDS and ALCS games at Petco Park in San Diego – where the biggest advantage was use of the clubhouse – before joining the Dodgers in Arlington.
“For the World Series you weren’t traveling at all,” Kiermaier said. “And that’s just not a thing. You always go back and forth.
A handful of fans were allowed into NLCS and World Series games in Arlington, but all of the AL’s playoffs went without them. The players had to generate their own energy, aided by – or despite – false reactions from the crowd played on the sound systems.
“I hated the pumped sound,” said slugger Luke Voit, whose Yankees lost to the Rays in the ALDS. “It wasn’t realistic and it was way too strong. It was a bit boring. This part was stupid.
Kiermaier said: “No matter what people say about it, I thought it helped.”
“You don’t want to play in a silent stadium. I thought it improved him a bit, “he said.
Fans have started returning to games this summer, starting with a sold-out opening day at Globe Life Field. Most parks significantly limited their capacity at the start of the season, but as city and state COVID-19 regulations relaxed, those caps were lifted and more seats filled.
The teams combined to attract 45,304,709 fans, led by the 2,804,693 Dodgers. That’s still a significant drop from attendance of 68,506,896 in 2019, with many parks still struggling to attract fans who may still be pissed off by the continued impacts of COVID-19.
If the end of the regular season is any indication, however, stadiums will be packed starting Tuesday night at Fenway Park for the AL wildcard game between the Red Sox and the Yankees.
With 11 teams entering the final week in the face of playoff uncertainty, stadiums across the country filled up and bursting with energy for the playoffs. The AL East Rays champion finished with a streak in Houston and Yankee Stadium, giving playoff stars like Randy Arozarena the little experience that last year’s World Series race lacked: performing in a sold-out stadium.
Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash was happy to have his team train. In Sunday’s final, Arozarena charged from right field and collided with rookie shortstop Wander Franco as the two called for a pop fly. Both players were doing well and the Rays coaches took it as a good time to learn.
“It’s going to be loud no matter where we are at,” Cash said. “Our baseball stadium or down the road, it’s going to get noisy, so these reps are good.”
Of course, no team will elicit a more unruly reaction on the road than Houston.
Almost two years after an MLB investigation confirmed reports that the Astros illegally stole signs from opponents en route to a 2017 championship, the team have been berated all over stadiums. The 2017 squad beat the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers to win that tainted title, which means visits to New York, Boston or Los Angeles could be especially busy.
“We’ll see how some of the young guys handle this,” said Dusty Baker, second-year Astros manager. “But they’ve had some experience this year with big crowds here at home in particular and kind of rowdy crowd on the road as well.”
Dodgers fans in particular would love this chance. After seven consecutive untitled playoff appearances, the star-studded Los Angeles team have finally managed to win a championship in 2020 without any of the festivities that usually accompany the award. No champagne in the house clubhouse, no clinch in Chavez Ravine and, above all, no parade. Even when the team raised their championship banner this season, only 15,036 were able to attend due to virus protocols.
Dodger Stadium was cleared to accommodate crowds at full capacity in June and fans have flocked to catch a glimpse of the defending champions. They also expect a full house for Wednesday’s game against St. Louis.
“To be there all year round to support us, we’ve led baseball like we do every year, and it’s a great community, it’s a great fan base,” said manager Dave. Roberts. “They care, they are passionate.”
Not everyone is sold on the merits of home court advantage.
“I’ve been the home team for a wildcard game three times and lost two,” said Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, who is scheduled to pitch Tuesday at Fenway Park.
This skepticism is rare, however. Even for the Rays, who finished 28th in attendance.
“When you’re at home you just feel like you have an extra teammate,” Kiermaier said.
AP sports writer Kristie Rieken in Houston and freelance writer Jill Painter Lopez in Los Angeles contributed.
Follow Jake Seiner: https://twitter.com/Jake_Seiner