NEW YORK (AP) — Kevin Kiermaier and the Tampa Bay Rays fought furiously in 2020 for their first division title in over a decade, assuring themselves home-field advantage throughout the AL playoffs.
In the end, it meant little more than last at-bats and a more comfortable clubhouse in San Diego.
The reigning AL champions are back as the league's top seed, anticipating a few more travel miles and a lot more adrenaline. Plus, this time the fan noise will be real.
"It's going to be a lot different from last year," said Kiermaier, a defensive whiz in the outfield. "And obviously for the better."
Baseball's postseason is returning to its pre-pandemic format a year after COVID-19 confined most of last October's action to empty stadiums in neutral sites. It's a welcome change for players who pushed through last year's playoffs supplying their own energy on a stage normally powered by the buzz created by live audiences.
"It's still the postseason, you're still playing for something," Yankees star Aaron Judge said. "But having the fans will turn it from a 10 to a 12."
MLB expanded the postseason field after the truncated 2020 regular season for fairness and extra TV revenue, inviting 16 teams to the playoff tournament instead of the standard 10. Three-game Wild Card series were held at the home stadiums of the higher seeds before the winners shipped off for neutral site Division Series games in Texas and California.
The World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers spent over three weeks in a baseball bubble around Arlington, Texas, for the Division Series, Championship Series and World Series at the Rangers' Globe Life Field.
The Rays were only slightly more traveled, playing their ALDS and ALCS games at San Diego's Petco Park — where the biggest perk was use of the home 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're always going back and forth."
A smattering of fans were allowed at NLCS and World Series games in Arlington, but the entire AL playoffs were held without them. Players were left to generate their own energy, aided by — or in spite of — fake crowd reactions played over the PA systems.
"I hated the sound pumped in," said slugger Luke Voit, whose Yankees lost to the Rays in the ALDS. "It wasn't realistic and it was way too loud. It was kind of annoying. That part was stupid."
Said Kiermaier: "Whatever people say about it, I thought it helped."
"You don't want to play in a silent stadium. I thought it made it a little bit better," he said.
Fans began returning to games this summer, starting with an opening day sellout at Globe Life Field. Most parks severely limited capacity in the early days of the season, but as city and state COVID-19 regulations eased, those caps lifted and more seats were filled.
Teams combined to draw 45,304,709 fans, led by the Dodgers' 2,804,693. That's still down significantly from 2019's attendance of 68,506,896, with many parks still struggling to attract some fans perhaps still unnerved by COVID-19's ongoing impacts.
If the end of the regular season is an indication, though, the ballparks will be packed starting Tuesday night at Fenway Park for the AL wild-card game between the Red Sox and Yankees.
With 11 teams entering the final week facing postseason uncertainty, stadiums across the country filled up and brimmed with playoff energy. The AL East champion Rays closed out with series at Houston and Yankee Stadium, giving postseason stars like Randy Arozarena the one bit of experience last year's run to the World Series lacked: performing in a sold-out stadium.
Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash was happy to get his team the practice. In Sunday's finale, Arozarena charged in from right field and collided with rookie shortstop Wander Franco as both called for a pop fly. Both players were OK, and Rays coaches took it as a teachable moment.
"It's going to be loud no matter where we're at," Cash said. "Our ballpark or on the road, it's going to get loud, so those reps are good."
Of course, no team will elicit a more unruly reaction on the road than Houston.
Nearly two years after an MLB investigation confirmed reports the Astros illegally stole opponents' signs en route to a 2017 championship, the team has been berated at ballparks everywhere. The 2017 team beat the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers to earn that tainted title, meaning visits to New York, Boston or Los Angeles could be particularly fraught.
"We'll see how some of the young guys handle it," second-year Astros manager Dusty Baker said. "But they've had some experience this year with big crowds here at home especially and some kind of rowdy crowds on the road, too."
Dodgers fans, in particular, would love that chance. After seven consecutive playoff appearances without a title, Los Angeles' star-studded team finally broke through for a championship in 2020 without any of the festivities that usually accompany the prize. No champagne in the home clubhouse, no clinching game at Chavez Ravine, and most notable, no parade. Even when the team raised its championship banner this season, only 15,036 were able to attend because of virus protocols.
Dodger Stadium was cleared to host full-capacity crowds in June and fans have come in droves for a glimpse of the reigning champs. They're expecting a packed house for Wednesday's wild-card game against St. Louis, too.
"For them to be here all year to support us, we led baseball in attendance like we do every year, and it's a great community, it's a great fan base," manager Dave Roberts said. "They care, they're passionate."
Not everyone is sold on the merits of home-field advantage.
"I've been the home team for a wild-card game three times and lost two of them," said Yankees ace Gerrit Cole, set to pitch Tuesday at Fenway Park.
That skepticism is rare, though. 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.