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Stretching the Field: NL West starting to simmer

Of the five clubs that make up the National League West, three of them have 40 or more wins.

In five of the six divisions in baseball, there are three teams with that many victories, but the race in the jumbled NL West is nearing a rolling boil.

The Arizona Diamondbacks are at the top of the division and five straight losses have softened their cushion. The Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres are the other clubs with 40-plus wins and soon the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants will join the mix.

Let me ask you this: Is it surprising the defending World Series champion Giants are in the basement of the division by Independence Day? Technically, three games off the lead doesn't necessarily leave the Giants in the outhouse- after-penthouse treatment.

The Giants essentially had the same roster that captured their second World Series title in the last three years and haven't been plagued by many injuries. They always keep the interest of fans piqued, so there shouldn't be any worries brewing out of the Bay Area just yet.

Of course, the sudden decline of two-time NL Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum is a popular topic and why Matt Cain has only five wins draws concern. Cain recorded nine wins by this time a year ago (9-3, 2.62 ERA).

It's not a promising sign for the Giants, losers in 13 of the last 17 games, when they fail to succeed when Cain tosses eight innings of one-run ball. He did just that in Saturday's 2-1 defeat at Colorado.

"We're in a funk right now and we're the only ones that can really get our way out of it," Cain said. "That's really all that it is."

Arizona's pitching funk has been alarming: No wins by the starting pitchers (0-11) in the last 24 games since June 5. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it ties the longest slump in franchise history (1998) and is nearing a 28-game drought established by Tampa Bay back in 2006.

Patrick Corbin leads the D'backs with nine wins, but Ian Kennedy was supposed to own that distinction. The former All-Star Kennedy is only 3-4 in 15 starts, one season after going 15-12 and two years removed from a career-high 21 wins (21-4) set in 2011. Control and command on the mound could be what's eating Kennedy, who has walked 33 batters. He issued 55 walks combined in 2011 and 2012.

Kennedy was a bit rusty his last time out and that was due largely to the 10- day absence because of a melee with the Dodgers. Kennedy admitted he struggled to get into a groove in an 11-5 loss at Atlanta on June 29 and gave up four runs in 4 1/3 innings.

"Definitely, you could tell I wasn't in sync," Kennedy said.

The D'backs don't appear to be missing Justin Upton, and Paul Goldschmidt has thrived with an NL-best 69 RBI. He leads the club in average (.302), RBI and home runs (20).

Speaking of the fracas with Los Angeles, it will be amusing to see what occurs when the D'backs and Dodgers meet again next week at Chase Field. However, the Dodgers can ill afford to lose any players due to suspension or injury because they have played the best baseball in the division lately.

Much like the Jeffersons, the Dodgers have been moving on up in the NL West thanks to a recent resurgence from the pitching staff and rookie outfielder Yasiel Puig. It should be a warning for the rest of the league when Clayton Kershaw is in the groove and the 2011 NL Cy Young Award winner has won back- to-back starts since a six-game winless streak (0-3).

Kershaw has allowed only two runs in his last 20 innings and recorded his second shutout of the season and seventh of his career Tuesday. Kershaw was appreciative of the offense, especially Puig. Puig is batting .443 with eight homers, 17 RBI and 21 runs since his promotion from Double-A Chattanooga.

"This lineup right now is tough to get through and Puig right now is on another planet," Kershaw said. "You keep thinking he can't keep this up. He hits the ball really hard everywhere."

Puig's swagger has yet to rub off on Matt Kemp or Andre Ethier, however, and when it does, opposing clubs should be wary. Adrian Gonzalez doesn't need added motivation and leads L.A. in average (.298), homers (11) and RBI (50).

In the closest battle among all members for first place in a division, the Padres and Rockies have decided to join the fun.

How on earth are the Padres in the thick of the NL West? It's simple: a collective team effort. One man can not define a team; success takes an entire roster.

Jason Marquis has been re-born on the mound, the bullpen is in the top 10 in ERA (3.27) and the main batting categories are spearheaded by three different players. Everth Cabrera has a .305 average, Will Venable has 10 home runs and Kyle Blanks has driven in 31 runs.

The offensive numbers are not eye-popping by any means for the Padres, who must improve on the road in order to maintain relevance in the race. Actually, every team in the division has a record below .500 as the visitor and a winning mark at home.

Colorado is one of three teams with 25 wins at home and is right behind the Diamondbacks. Imagine if Troy Tulowitzki can stay healthy. The stud shortstop is currently sidelined with a broken rib and, when healthy, gives the Rockies a trio of deadly hitters. The other two? Michael Cuddyer and Carlos Gonzalez.

Cuddyer just had a career-best 27-game hitting streak come to an end, making it obvious that he's seeing the ball very well. CarGo already has hit a NL-leading 22 home runs with 60 RBI, and will most likely be penciled in for the All-Star Game.

The Rockies' bullpen is decent and starting pitching needs work after Jorge De La Rosa and Jhoulys Chacin. The two have eight and seven wins, respectively, for a club that has dropped five of its last seven games.

All clubs go through extremes to reach new heights. One could compare it to basketball with big men posting up to gain an advantage. And the one left standing tends to avoid injury and plays with a cohesive sensibility.

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