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NL West has baseball's tightest race

The five National League West Division teams are separated by just seven games, making it perhaps the best of the six division races from top to bottom.

In fact, if you don't count the disappointing last-place Los Angeles Dodgers, the top four teams in the division are separated by just 1 1/2 games. No team has taken charge yet, however, giving the Dodgers hope of getting back into the chase.

Most baseball experts predicted in the preseason that either the San Francisco Giants or the Dodgers would win the division crown. However, the Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres have been better than just about anyone expected.

The intensity of this division race hit a boiling point last week, when the Diamondbacks and Dodgers staged an old-fashioned beanball war that resulted in a host of suspensions.

Fan interest has been substantial in the early going, too, as the Dodgers and Giants rank first and second, respectively, in average major-league attendance. Meanwhile, the improved Rockies rank 11th.

Let's try to answer some key questions within one of baseball's most interesting divisions.

CAN THE DIAMONDBACKS WIN THE DIVISION TITLE?

The Giants are the defending world champions and the Dodgers have the sport's highest payroll, but Arizona might just sneak in and win the NL West crown for the second time in three years.

The first-place Diamondbacks have a half-game lead over second-place Colorado.

Arizona has received an MVP-caliber performance from first baseman Paul Goldschmidt (.305, 16 home runs, 61 RBI) as well as better-than-expected production from the likes of Gerardo Parra (who has gotten more playing time than anticipated because of an Adam Eaton elbow injury in spring training), Eric Chavez (who is on the disabled list with an oblique injury) and rookie shortstop Didi Gregorius.

Patrick Corbin, who won the No. 5 starter job out of spring training, has surprisingly settled in as a Cy Young Award candidate. Heath Bell, elevated to the closer role when J.J. Putz went down with a strained elbow, has rediscovered his effectiveness.

As well as Arizona has played this well, it's easy to see how the team might even improve over the second half of the year. Second baseman Aaron Hill has been limited to 36 at-bats because he's been sidelined since mid-April with a broken hand.

It hasn't healed properly, but Hill is going to try to fight through the injury and could return as soon as this weekend. Even at less than 100 percent, he would represent a big offensive upgrade from Cliff Pennington.

Eaton, thought to be one of the league's most promising rookies this year, should provide a bolt of energy when he comes off the disabled list, probably before the All-Star break. Putz is throwing off a mound and could be ready for a rehabilitation assignment soon. Chavez could be back sometime this month.

Without even making any trades, Arizona could fortify its roster for the second half simply by returning to health.

Also, catcher Miguel Montero is starting to show signs of life after a painfully slow start. If he can begin to provide the power bat in the middle of the order, like he has in the past, Arizona would pretty easily boast the top lineup in the division.

DESPITE A JUNE CALL-UP, COULD YASIEL PUIG WIN N.L. ROOKIE OF THE YEAR HONORS?

Puig spent April and May in the minor leagues, but the Dodgers' outfielder is making up ground on the NL rookie of the year leaders rather quickly. He was named NL player of the week in his first big-league week. Through 48 at-bats, he's hitting .479 with four homers and 10 RBI.

Atlanta's Evan Gattis, barely on major-league radar before becoming a headline- grabber during spring training, won NL rookie of the month honors for both April and May. For the season, he's batting .247 with 14 homers and 37 RBIs.

So, based on rookie of the month results, Gattis should be the leading rookie of the year candidate, right? Actually, that would probably be St. Louis pitcher Shelby Miller, who is 8-4 with a 2.08 ERA in 14 starts. His ERA ranks third in the league, and he's helped the Cardinals overcome injuries to Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia.

This is a pretty impressive NL rookie crop overall, with the Diamondbacks' Gregorius (.297 batting average), the Dodgers' Hyun-Jin Ryu (6-2, 2.85 ERA), the Miami Marlins' Jose Fermandez (4-3, 3.11 ERA) and the San Diego Padres' Jedd Gyorko (.284, eight homers, 25 RBIs) all in the mix.

Over a brief couple of weeks, though, few players have been as impressive as the Dodgers' Puig. Although he hasn't really developed plate discipline yet, Puig has simply been a hitting machine. He probably has the highest ceiling of any NL rookie.

Since Puig has gotten the majority of his hits on either the first or second pitch, his lack of selectivity hasn't really hurt him yet. The attention he's been getting will help in the rookie voting, and he will probably put up some impressive numbers this year. Puig has a chance to earn the honor, but the smart money is probably still on Miller.

WILL THE GIANTS' PITCHING RETURN TO CHAMPIONSHIP FORM?

San Francisco's bullpen has been every bit as good as it was during the 2010 and 2012 world championship seasons. The same cannot be said about the Giants' starting pitching.

Madison Bumgarner is the Giants' lone starter with an ERA under 4.00, unless you count Chad Gaudin (2.83), who has made just three starts while filling in for injured Ryan Vogelsong. Bumgarner's ERA is 3.30, and he has a 6-4 record through 14 starts.

The rest of San Francisco's starters have been inconsistent. Tim Lincecum (4-7, 4.57 ERA), Matt Cain (5-3, 4.70) and Barry Zito (4-5, 4.67) have not pitched as well as they would like, and Vogelsong had posted a 2-4 record and 7.19 ERA before going to the sidelines with a fractured hand.

Cain has started to regain his old form in recent starts. The main reason for his early season struggles was an increase in home runs allowed. His strikeout rate, as well as hits and walks allowed rates, have remained similar to those of his previous three seasons. Cain looks poised to have a big second half.

It's hard to say whether the Giants could count on second-half improvement from Lincecum and Zito, or from Vogelsong when he returns. Maybe the increased innings they threw during last year's long postseason run have taken a toll.

Whatever the problem, San Francisco's team ERA of 4.12 - ranked 12th among the 15 NL teams - is a huge disappointment, especially considering the Giants pitchers' track records and the fact that AT&T is such a great pitchers' park.

CAN THE ROCKIES HANG WITH THE DIVISION LEADERS ALL SEASON?

On one hand, there are a couple of reasons why you want to say yes.

The pitching - led by starter Jorge De La Rosa and unhittable reliever Rex Brothers - has shown such improvement from a year ago.

The offense, with its usual big boost from star outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, is second in the league with 352 runs scored.

On the other hand, you're tempted to say no because of the broken rib that All- Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki suffered last week. He is expected to be sidelined until late July or the beginning of August.

It's not like this is anything new to the Rockies; they're pretty much used to losing Tulowitzki for an extended period with an injury. He's the best offensive shortstop in baseball (and a Gold Glove-caliber fielder, too), but he has missed an average of 42 games per season during his six previous full years in the majors.

He's going to miss as much as a quarter of this season, and there's a terrible drop-off in production when he's not in the lineup. Tulowitzki is hitting .347 with 16 homers, 51 RBI, a .414 on-base percentage and a .639 slugging percentage.

At the time of the injury, Tulowitzki led the NL in slugging percentage, and ranked third in home runs and on-base percentage and fourth in RBIs.

To replace a player like that with the likes of Jonathan Herrera (no homers, six RBIs in 84 at-bats) and Josh Rutledge, who is back after having been demoted to the minor leagues, is hardly a recipe for success.

AFTER A TERRIBLE START, COULD THE PADRES BE A SERIOUS CONTENDER?

If judging solely on paper, the quick answer is probably not, but San Diego has quietly been one of the league's most impressive teams since late April.

The Padres started the season 2-10. Since then, they've posted a 34-24 record to improve to 36-34 overall, surprisingly just one game out of first place.

It's really remarkable how San Diego has done it with so few standout individual performers. The team's most impressive player has been shortstop Everth Cabrera, who is on his way to a career season. He's hitting .305 with 24 RBIs and a league-leading 31 stolen bases.

Quick: Who is the Padres' leader in RBIs? It's none other than injured Yonder Alonso, although he is No. 1 on the team with a mere 29. Eight San Diego players have between 21 and 29 RBIs, making this the epitome of a total team effort.

The main reason it's hard to take San Diego seriously as a contender, though, is its team ERA of 4.15, which ranks just 13th in the NL. Sure, the fences were moved in a bit at Petco Park this season, but not so much so that it's become a hitters' paradise.

San Diego needs to get much better pitching than it's gotten from Edinson Volquez (5-5, 5.84 ERA) and Clayton Richard (2-5, 7.01), who opened the season as the Padres' Nos. 1 and 2 starters, respectively.

Manager Bud Black, one of the finest in the business, is getting the most anyone can possibly squeeze out of this roster. If he can get them to .500 or above, it would be an impressive feat, given the Padres' lack of big run producers.

However, it's going to probably take about 90 victories to win the NL West. The Padres look more like an 80- to 82-win team.