The taste of the fans back in October

NEW YORK – Kevin Kiermaier and the Tampa Bay Rays fought furiously in 2020 to claim their first division title in more than a decade and secure home-field advantage in the AL postseason.

In the end, that achievement meant no greater than hitting the bottom of the inning and enjoying a comfortable clubhouse in San Diego.

The reigning champions of America return with first place in the league in the regular season. But this time they foresee a little more kilometers traveled and more adrenaline.

Also, this time the sound of the audience will be real and not a recording.

“It will be very different from last year,” acknowledged Kiermaier, a defensive prodigy in the outfield. “And obviously it will be better.”

Baseball’s postseason reverts to its pre-pandemic format, a year after COVID-19 confined most of the October action to empty stadiums at neutral sites. It’s a welcome change for the players, who had to cheer for themselves in the absence of supporters in last year’s playoffs, in a setting where the crowd is usually the one in charge of bringing the cheers and applause.

“It was still the postseason and you were playing for something,” recalled Yankees star Aaron Judge. “But having the fans will take it from 10 points to 12.”

Major League Baseball expanded the playoffs in the shortened 2020 campaign to create equity and more TV earnings, including 16 teams in the playoffs instead of the usual 10.

Three wild-card series were held at the home of the top seeded players before the winners traveled to neutral venues for the divisional series in Texas and California.

The Los Angeles Dodgers, eventually champions, spent more than three weeks in a bubble in Arlington, Texas for the division series, the Championship Series and the World Series. The Fall Classic was held at the Rangers’ Globe Life Field.

The Rays had to travel a bit more, playing their division and championship series games at Petco Park in San Diego before joining the Dodgers in Arlington.

“For the World Series we didn’t travel at all,” Kiermaier said. “And that is not usual. You always come and go ”.

Fans began returning to the games this year, starting with a sold-out on the first day at Globe Life Field.

Not everyone is convinced of the merits of the home advantage.

“I’ve been the home team in the wild card series three times and we lost two of those times,” Yankees ace Gerrit Cole said Tuesday at Fenway park.

Skepticism is rare. Even for the Rays who finished 28th in attendance.