Real or Not? The AL East is setting up as a race for the ages

Sunday’s game at Yankee Stadium was one of the most exciting of the young season. Yankees rookie Domingo German, making his first major league start after a promotion from the bullpen to replace the injured Jordan Montgomery, tossed six hitless innings. It was 0-0 in the eighth when Aaron Boone tried to squeeze a second inning out of Dellin Betances, but the Indians began the inning with three straight hits to knock out Betances and eventually take a 4-0 lead.

Indians starter Mike Clevinger allowed just one hit in 7⅓ innings, but he walked two batters in the eighth, and with Andrew Miller on the disabled list, Terry Francona tried to squeeze five outs from closer Cody Allen. He got one out, but Brett Gardner singled in a run and Aaron Judge doubled in two more.

The game went to the bottom of the ninth with the Indians holding the 4-3 lead. Aaron Hicks doubled to deep center, Neil Walker doubled to tie the game, Allen was out after 32 pitches, and Dan Otero came in. After Miguel Andujar grounded out, Giancarlo Stanton was given an intentional walk, and then Gleyber Torres did this on a 3-2 pitch:

A star is officially born. That’s already four wins for the Yankees when trailing after eight innings, Torres is hitting .327 and slugging .500 in 15 games since his call-up, and the Yankees have won 15 of their past 16 games, outscoring their opponents 98-37. (And it wasn’t cleaning up on the dregs of the AL, as these games came against the Blue Jays, Twins, Angels, Astros and Indians.)

These are the powerful Yankees who lead the majors in runs per game, but in this stretch they’ve also allowed two runs or fewer in nine of the 16 games. As Coley Harvey writes, the Yankees have won with many different heroes.

Meanwhile, in Arlington, Texas, Chris Sale mowed down the Rangers with 12 strikeouts in seven innings in a 6-1 victory. With Mookie Betts leading the majors in home runs and batting average and J.D. Martinez hitting .349/.396/.619, the Red Sox are second to the Yankees in runs per game.

The Red Sox lead the Yankees by one game as the teams take Monday off ahead of their three-game series in the Bronx that starts Tuesday.

All indicators are that we’re headed for an epic division race between powerful franchises, maybe even two teams that will win 100 games. Some have argued that the last great division race was the 1993 NL West race between the Braves and Giants that the Braves won on the final day of the season with 104 wins. The advent of the wild card in 1995 decreased the importance of winning the division. When the Red Sox finally won the World Series in 2004, for example, they finished second in the AL East with 98 wins to the Yankees’ 101.

The creation of the second wild card in 2012 put the pressure back on winning the division -- no team wants to play in the coin-flip game. In the six completed seasons since, however, I’d argue we’ve lacked a particularly memorable division race. Maybe that’s because the loser in a tight race makes the playoffs anyway. These are the five best division races since 2012:

2012 AL West

A’s: 94-68

Rangers: 93-69

The Rangers blew a four-game lead with six to play as the A’s swept them the final three games to clinch on the final day.

2012 AL East

Yankees: 95-67

Orioles: 93-69

The Yankees were never out of first place in September, but they were tied on nine separate days, including with three games left.

2013 NL Central

Cardinals: 97-65

Pirates: 94-68

The Cardinals’ biggest lead all season was four games (the last on June 9), and they actually trailed by four games in August. The Pirates were last tied for first with 12 games left, and the Cardinals clinched with two games remaining.

2014 AL Central

Tigers: 90-72

Royals: 89-73

The Tigers were up two with three to play. They lost and the Royals won on the final Friday, both teams lost on Saturday, but the Tigers clinched with a win on Sunday.

2015 NL Central

Cardinals: 100-62

Pirates: 98-64

Cubs: 97-65

On paper, this looks like a tight three-team race, except the Cardinals assumed the division lead on April 17 and never relinquished it. They lost their last three games to make the final standings appear a little closer. At least there were three excellent teams involved.

All of these teams made the playoffs. So did both teams in a couple other close races. So we haven’t had a race (A) between two great teams, or (B) between mediocre teams in which one misses the playoffs.

Maybe we’ll never have a great division race again. Or maybe this year’s Red Sox-Yankees battle will add to the lore of 1977 and 1978 and 2003 and 2004.

Shohei Ohtani shines in return to mound: Ohtani hadn’t pitched since April 24 because of a sprained ankle, but was sharp against Seattle, spotting his fastball on the outside corner and getting the Mariners to swing at breaking balls away:

Ohtani took a shutout into the seventh, but then gave up a two-run homer to Ryon Healy, so his final line was two runs in six innings. After an 8-2 win, he’s 3-1 in five starts with a 4.10 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 26⅓ innings, and he’s hitting .339/.391/.627. The Angels moved into a one-game lead over the Astros in the AL West. Life is good.

Scherzer’s strikeout spree: Max Scherzer fanned 15 in 6⅓ innings, but threw 111 pitches, so he joined James Paxton as a pitcher in the past week who had a chance at 20 strikeouts except their pitch counts were too high (Paxton fanned 16 in seven innings). This turned into a wild game as the Phillies led 4-1 before the Nationals scored twice in the eighth and twice in the ninth (off an erratic Hector Neris, who walked two and hit a batter) for a 5-4 victory.

Nationals pitchers ended up with 18 strikeouts. The Pirates and Red Sox fanned 14 opposing batters. The Rockies, Yankees and Reds fanned 13. That made it 101 games so far in which a team has struck at least 13 batters -- or one in every 9.8 team games played (meaning one about every five games overall). In 1993 -- just 25 years ago -- there were only 58 such games all season, or one in every 39 games overall.

Buster Olney wrote about all the strikeouts Sunday. “It’s just not that fun to watch,” he quoted one evaluator as saying. Indeed, more strikeouts and more home runs means less of everything else. Along with pace of play, this may be the next big issue for baseball to tackle. Is there enough action that isn’t simply about power pitching and power hitting? Stay tuned. This topic isn’t going away.

Collin McHugh makes history: This was from Saturday, but we have to mention it: Collin McHugh became the first reliever to ride the Diamondbacks’ bullpen cart. My favorite part is he did it without even smiling as he climbed off the cart:

Now, we need to put ESPN Stats & Info on this: Who holds the record for most bullpen-cart rides? While you can trace their debut back to the 1950s, they seemed to peak in the 1970s and basically died out by the mid-'80s. I’ll go with Rollie Fingers.