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Relieved Rays need to earn an AL pennant in MLB's bizarre, robust 2020 season

2:40 am ET

Pedro GomezMLB

CloseESPN's Pedro Gomez reported almost daily on the Oakland A's home and absence for the San Jose Mercury News and Sacramento Bee from 1992 to 1997. He then became a national baseball writer and later a general columnist in the Republic of Arizona before becoming a reporter for the ESPN bureau in 2003.

SAN DIEGO – Three days of mounting fear turned into a night of euphoria for the Tampa Bay Rays, who became the new American League champions on Saturday night after beating the Houston Astros 4-2 in seven games with a 4-2 win. Victory had sent World Series in the MLB playoffs.

"The last three days have been pretty excruciating," said Rays manager Kevin Cash. "We definitely added to our stress levels. They are a really good team over there. I would have preferred game 4 or 5 to game 7."

There could be more than 2,000 aviation miles between Petco Park and the Rays home at Tropicana Field, where this game would have taken place under normal circumstances, but that has done little to diminish the way in which they participated in these games even though they haven't played a single game in front of fans all season.

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"I feel bad that the fans couldn't be in the parks," said Charlie Morton, the Tampa Bay starter, who also won Game 7. "Our families could only see us when they were in quarantine. My mom flown in from New Jersey, but I can only see her from 15 feet away. But the silver lining is coming to the postseason and it's just not same thing but I've looked over to the dugout and I know that guys we play, they take care of it and they want to win.

"Probably more than any other year this year, the motivation is to do it for each other. They stick to protocols; they socially distance themselves from families at home. They tell their kids they can't hug them level of the." Humanity and empathy that you wouldn't see in a normal season. "

This atmosphere could have been like that of a travel team game at 8 a.m., empty stands and little to no outside energy. But the intensity on the field during the games was the quality of the major league. Partying on the pitch was a bit of a hassle. The players weren't sure what to do when they gathered on the infield as they accepted the AL championship title.

"It was very, very intense," said Cash. "I can't sit here and say that if we were at Trop, our home, Yankee Stadium or Minute Maid, they wouldn't have been very intense in those stadiums. But the intensity of what our players are showing and what the opponents are showed made everything very, very tense for all of us. I didn't [slept last night]. I don't know if I went to bed. Very scared. We all have & # 39; Four days in October & # 39; seen. & # 39; I didn't want to see it again. "

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

JOHN G MABANGLO / EPA-EFE / Shutterstock

The 2020 American League pennant will weigh the same weight as any previous championship flag, even if it was used in a 60-game regular season shortened by a pandemic. Someone was going to be crowned AL champion this season, and even if it took four extra tense days after taking the lead in the 3-0 series, the Rays were more than eager to turn a few winning cigars around ignite in a seven day marathon to put the Astros away.

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Tampa Bay has just played 12 postseason games in a 13 day period: 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. Meanwhile, the Rays first shared the same hotel with the Yankees and then shared the Astros, a five-story resort in nearby Carlsbad, where one club occupied two floors, the other two different floors and one floor was the buffer.

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

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

Several Rays players have chosen to be accompanied by women and children in quarantine. The parents were not allowed to do this, however, so they could wave and scream to their sons after the game from about 20 feet away.

Shane McClanahan, the Tampa Bay reliever, made his Major League debut against the Yankees during the ALDS, giving up a stroll for Kyle Higashioka, the second great leaguer he ever faced. After that, McClanahan could only speak to his parents by phone. He said the first thing his father said to him was, "So, a 3-2 walk, huh?" He said he replied, "Yes, great to talk to you too, Dad."

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Another key difference these players are already used to: No wild, champagne-soaked clubhouse parties. These are no-no this season, at least until after the World Series. Instead, the Rays had a dance-off in front of their dugout after defeating the Yankees. This time they slipped into their clubhouse, but it was anything but the normal "Animal House" -style craziness you'd see in any year other than 2020. Let's just say the clubhouse carpets don't need to be cleaned thoroughly.

"We did a great job making it as fun as possible," said Zunino. "There are confetti and silly strings. But there is nothing like popping bottles and seeping them in and burning your eyes."

The Rays, who play at the 30-year-old Tropicana Field, first streamed over the luxurious and spacious home clubhouse of the Padres, where they have been at home for two weeks. When asked about the differences between her home and the Petco facilities shortly after she arrived on October 2nd, aide Nick Anderson responded by asking, "Are you trying to get me into trouble?"

No amount of canned noise can ever duplicate the feel of a real crowd of more than 40,000 people. But none of this matters to these rays. You will be playing under the brightest lights, although some baseball fans will find it difficult to know who they are watching.

"We don't have too many famous names that a lot of people will know," said veteran outfielder Kevin Kiermaier. "But we know the above average players we have there. We're just a bunch of shabby, hard-playing people and we show it on the field and we know how to win games – and that's it." everything that is important to us. "

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