Relieved Tampa Bay Rays enjoy earning AL pennant in MLB's strange, tough 2020 season

SAN DIEGO -- Three days of rising anxiety turned into one night of euphoria for the Tampa Bay Rays, who became the new American League champions on Saturday night after finally dispatching the Houston Astros in seven games with a 4-2 victory to advance to the World Series in the MLB playoffs.

"The last three days were pretty agonizing," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "We definitely added to our stress levels. That's a really good team over there. I would have rather gotten it done in Game 4 or 5 than in Game 7."

There might be more than 2,000 aeronautical miles between Petco Park and the Rays' home at Tropicana Field, where this game would have taken place under normal circumstances, but that did little to diminish the manner in which they competed in these games, despite not playing a single game in front of fans all season.

"I feel bad that fans haven't been able to be at the parks," said Charlie Morton, Tampa Bay's starter who also won Game 7. "Our families haven't been able to see us unless they're in quarantine. My mom flew in from New Jersey, but I can only see her from 15 feet away. But the silver lining to this is, get to the postseason and it's just not the same. But I've looked across at the dugout and I know the guys that we're playing; they care, and they want to win.

"Probably more so this year than any other year, the motivation is doing it for each other. You adhere to protocols; you're social distancing from families at home. Telling their kids they can't hug them. This has brought out a level of humanity and empathy that you wouldn't see in a normal season."

This atmosphere might have been similar to that of a travel team game at 8 in the morning, empty stands and little to no outside energy. But the intensity on the field during games was major league quality. Celebrating on the field was a bit awkward, with players looking unsure about what they should be doing as they congregated on the infield as they accepted the AL championship trophy.

"It's been very, very intense," Cash said. "I cannot sit here and say if we were in the Trop, our home, or at Yankee Stadium or Minute Maid that they wouldn't have been very intense in those ballparks. But the intensity of what our players show and what the opposition has shown has made everything very, very tense for all of us. I didn't [sleep last night]. I don't know if I went to bed. A lot of anxiety. We've all watched 'Four Days in October.' I didn't want to see it again."

The Rays, who had the best record in the American League, will end their 16-day stay in San Diego and fly to Arlington, Texas, on Sunday, ready to appear in the franchise's second World Series. It hardly matters that only a few hundred people, mostly family and a smattering of reporters, security guards and the stadium DJ, actually witnessed in person what transpired at Petco Park over the past two weeks.

The 2020 American League pennant will carry the same weight as any previous championship flag, even if it came in a pandemic-shortened 60-game regular season. Someone was going to be crowned AL champs this season, and even if it did take four additional tension-filled days after they took a commanding 3-0 series lead, the Rays were more than eager to fire up a few victory cigars in what turned into a seven-day marathon to put away the Astros.

Tampa Bay just played an unprecedented 12 postseason games in a 13-day span: five games in five days against the New York Yankees in the AL Division Series, one day off and then seven in seven against Houston. All the while, the Rays shared the same hotel with the Yankees first and then the Astros, a five-story resort in nearby Carlsbad where one club occupied two floors, the other two different floors and one floor provided the buffer.

"This wasn't easy," Tampa Bay catcher Mike Zunino said. "We played five straight days in the [division series], seven straight days in the [championship series]. These guys responded."

The Rays players were in quarantine in a hotel in St. Petersburg, Florida, during the final week of the regular season, sharing that space with the visiting Philadelphia Phillies first and then the Toronto Blue Jays during the wild-card round before arriving in San Diego.

Several Rays players chose to be joined by wives and children in quarantine. However, parents were not allowed to do so, leaving them to wave and yell to their sons from about 20 feet away after games.

Tampa Bay reliever Shane McClanahan made his major league debut versus the Yankees during the ALDS and gave up a full-count walk to Kyle Higashioka, only the second big leaguer he had ever faced. Afterward, McClanahan could only speak to his parents over the phone. He said the first thing his father said to him was, "So, a 3-2 walk, eh?" He said he replied, "Yeah, great to talk to you too dad."

Such is big league life in 2020.

Another major difference that these players have already grown accustomed to: no wild, champagne-drenched clubhouse celebrations. Those are considered a no-no this season, at least until after the World Series. Instead, the Rays had a dance-off in front of their dugout after beating the Yankees. This time, they slipped inside their clubhouse, but it was anything but the normal "Animal House"-style craziness you'd see in any other year than 2020. Let's just say there won't be a need to deep clean the clubhouse carpets.

"We've done a great job to make it as fun as possible," Zunino said. "There's confetti and silly string. But there's nothing better than popping bottles and having that seep in and burn your eyes."

The Rays, who play at 30-year-old Tropicana Field, initially gushed over the Padres' luxurious and expansive home clubhouse that has been their home for the past two weeks. When asked about the differences between their home and the Petco facilities soon after their arrival on Oct. 2, reliever Nick Anderson answered by asking, "Are you trying to get me in trouble?"

No amount of canned crowd noise could ever duplicate the feeling of a real, 40,000-plus crowd. But none of that matters to these Rays. They're going to play under the brightest lights possible, even if it will be difficult for some baseball fans to know who they're watching.

"We don't have too many household names that a ton of people are going to know," veteran outfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. "But we know the very well-above-average players that we have in there. We're just a bunch of scrappy, hard-playing guys, and we show it on the field and we know how to win games -- and that's all that's important to us."