Welcome back to The Rotation! Here are five topics in the world of Major League Baseball worth bantering about this week.
1. Hunter becomes hunted
The best you can say about Hunter Strickland is that he wasn't -- ahem -- a head-Hunter on Monday when he plunked Bryce Harper with a pitch. Even Harper had to give him that.
"He hit me in the right spot," Harper said. "I do respect him for that."
But there was so much stupid associated with Strickland's 98-mph plunking of Harper's hip in the eighth inning at AT&T Park as payback for Harper's slow trot and jawing after a National League Division Series home run off Strickland (his second such homer in that series) way, way back in 2014. Strickland's stunt was so lame that Buster Posey didn't even come to his defense when Harper charged the mound. He incited a brawl in which his own teammates, Jeff Samardzija and Mike Morse, literally bumped heads and he left the field fighting his fellow Giants.
So now, in the season that has already brought us the Blue Jays-Braves tension and the Manny Machado mess, we have yet another ridiculous retaliation to study and scrutinize while the league decides how to mete out discipline and the Nats (probably) decide who to plunk (most likely Posey, which again explains why he just stood there).
MLB's bound to come down hard on Harper for charging the mound, but he might have saved himself from a marathon suspension with what Twitter quickly dubbed a 50 Cent-like helmet toss that landed well right of Strickland. Whether Harper realized the potential repercussions mid-chuck and changed course or the helmet simply slipped, he was fortunate. Because as has been pointed out many, many times in the past, pitchers intentionally flinging hard projectiles at other humans is somehow nowhere near as taboo as doing Delmon Young stuff.
If internal industry discussion is any indication, maybe we're getting closer to a point where MLB gets stricter with pitchers regarding retaliation, though the obvious difficulty with such a development would be determining what to do in situations where, unlike Strickland-Harper, the intent is not necessarily clear-cut.
The real problem here is that baseball -- much as we love it -- is still a sport in which the violence of fastball-to-body routinely erupts as a result of pitchers' feelings getting hurt. That's what so much of this still boils down to. Hyper-sensitivity toward getting posterized.
2. Feeling numb about Mike's thumb
We talked about the greatness of Mike Trout in this space last week, and that's something we could do literally every week. But as easy as it is to focus on the offensive numbers and the Wins Above Replacement credentials that put him on a pace that could one day lead to an argument as the best player of all-time, Trout's sheer ability to post up day after day after day was an underrated element of his appeal.
From the time he came back to the big leagues for good on April 28, 2012, Trout has appeared in 818 of a possible 844 Angels games. The only player who has logged more time in that span is Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager (827).
So Monday's news that Trout has a torn ligament in his thumb is pretty jarring. For five years, Trout has not only been an indomitable force but an indestructible one. He'll miss a minimum of three to four weeks, possibly as many as eight if he has surgery (as of this writing, the Angels were still evaluating their options).
If the Halos have to scrape and claw just to play .500 ball with Trout, what will they look like without him?
3. Crown 'em
The American League West race is no more. It has ceased to be. It is expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late division. It's a stiff. Bereft of life. It rests in peace. If there weren't still four full months to play (ceremonially), it would be pushing up daisies. It's run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible.
Pardon the parroting of John Cleese in this synopsis of events in what some dope who actually gets paid to watch baseball thought could be the most interesting division race in baseball this year, but the Astros have turned this thing into a Monty Python-style laugher. They've got a 10 1/2-game lead post-Memorial Day, which might not land them the Holy Grail just yet but, for all intents and purposes, leaves everybody else in the West clinging to Wild Card hope.
The Astros are putting everybody away because they're darn near impossible to put away. On Monday, they had an 8-2 deficit going into the eighth inning in Minnesota. In the past 55 years, the Astros had faced a six-run hole after seven innings 659 times and lost every time. This time, they scored 11 runs in the eighth and went on to win, 16-8.
In the process, the Astros ran their run differential to an MLB-best plus-74. They've won 13 of 16 series overall and eight of their last nine and are merely one game behind the Cubs' profound pace of a year ago. But even the Cubs didn't rack up this big a division lead quite this quickly. In the Wild Card era, the only two teams with larger leads in their division over the second-place squad through May 29 were the 2001 Mariners (14 games) and the 2007 Red Sox (11 1/2). The former went on to set an AL wins record, and the latter went on to win the World Series.
As with the '16 Cubs, a comfortable cushion won't prevent the Astros from adding on at the Trade Deadline. The division title will be nice, but the goal here is winning the franchise's first championship title (if you thought the Cubs' 108-year drought was long, remember the Astros haven't won it all in the 4.6 billion years that earth has existed). So they'll look for a proven starter and probably another lefty relief presence to pair with Tony Sipp in a bullpen that has the highest strikeout percentage on record.
4. Crush crashes
Even when the reeling O's possibly got off a serious schnide (they had dropped 13 of 16 to go from tied for first in the AL East to 4 1/2 games out) with Monday's 3-2 win over the Yankees, Chris Davis turned in an 0-for-4 with two strikeouts. He's now 3-for-his-last-40 with 22 strikeouts and just one walk in his last 10 games.
"I'm just not picking up the ball," he told reporters over the weekend, "and that's going to make hitting pretty tough."
When the O's re-signed the man they call "Crush" Davis (and likely bid against themselves) with a seven-year, $161 million contract before the 2016 season, they knew they were latching themselves onto his high K rate in exchange for pure power. But Davis' strikeout rate in the past three seasons has gone from 31 percent to 32.9 to 37.8, and his slugging percentage has gone from .562 to .459 to .450. Davis is on pace to strike out 250 times this season. The MLB record is 223, by Mark Reynolds in 2009.
May has brought a frustrating regression to the mean for the Orioles, whose starters' ERA this month (5.00) has been more in line with what the prognosticators expected. That makes the O's increasingly reliant on the O, and right now Davis is a non-factor.
5. Sonny days are here again
In recent years, the A's have traded Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes and Addison Russell and Josh Reddick, among others. But they kept Sonny Gray on the heels of his 2015 AL Cy Young Award bid, only to watch his value erode as his ERA rose and his health deteriorated in 2016 and the start of this season.
Gray, though, returned earlier this month from the lat strain that landed him on the Opening Day DL and has looked phenomenal. In his past four starts, he's allowed just seven earned runs on 19 hits with 24 strikeouts in 23 2/3 innings. According to FanGraphs, he's getting the highest percentage of swings outside the strike zone (31.5) and swinging strikes (11.2) of his career.
This summer's trade market has the potential to be oversaturated with starting arms, but potential buyers like the Astros, Cubs, Yankees and Indians are bound to prioritize players with multiple years of control attached to them. Right now, the only obvious impact candidate in that realm is Jose Quintana, but there is little reason to suspect that the A's, won't listen on Gray, who's eligible to be a free agent after the 2019 season. That makes his every outing -- including Tuesday night's start in Cleveland -- appointment viewing for evaluators in need and, sure, for the rest of us, too.
Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.