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MLB: Can the National League keep surprising us?

Heading into the 2018 MLB season, the biggest questions revolved around who could challenge the Nationals, Cubs, and Dodgers for division titles.

With the first month of the season in the books, none of those three teams sit atop their divisions and there are serious questions as to whether two of them can climb back into contention.

Let’s look at how things are shaping up in the National League and see if we can tell how it will all shake out.

NL East: Is the division up for grabs?

One could argue it is not a grand surprise that the Mets are in first place. After all, quite a few people said if things fell into place, New York could challenge the Nationals.

The thing is, most of those things are not falling into place. Their starting pitching is suspect after their top two guns. The relief corps started strong but blew a bunch of games recently. They are not hitting particularly well.

Ten of the Mets first 17 victories were of the come-from-behind variety. That type of track record tends to even out over time. New York seems primed for a bad stretch.

Meanwhile, injuries are devastating the Nationals. Bryce Harper is the only offensive threat. Somehow, he hit eight home runs in the middle of 36 walks. No one will pitch to him until the Nationals get another batter in their lineup.

But the biggest question is whether the upstart Phillies or even the Braves can steal the NL East title. The two are tied for second just a game behind the Mets heading into May.

Conventional wisdom says the Nationals will get healthy and come charging back. The Mets will start hitting and take some pressure off their pitching. Philadelphia could hang in long enough to consider a trade deadline deal, but Atlanta's young team will hit a wall early.

But it sure is hard to see that happening through the first month or so. Stay tuned.

NL Central: Pittsburgh surprising early

Chicago was expected to have learned their lesson last season and come out of the gate strong. They did at 15-10.

That was supposed to prevent a repeat of last season’s surprising challenge by the Milwaukee Brewers, who returned in 2018 with an even better team than the one who missed the playoffs by one game.

But someone forgot to tell the Pirates. All they’ve done is run out to a 17-11 start, while racking up the second-best batting average and run total through April 30. Their bats mask a mediocre pitching staff (4.00 ERA).

The projected challengers to the Cubs, the Cardinals and Brewers, are right behind Chicago. They are more likely to stay within striking distance of the favorites.

Pittsburgh’s bats will cool off and their pitching will not be able to cover them. Milwaukee, Chicago, and St Louis trail only the Arizona Diamondbacks in team ERA. The Cubs remain the favorite, but with good health, this could be a three-team race.

NL West: Is Arizona really the best team in the NL?

Anyone remember when I wrote the Dodgers could fall into fourth place this season? Really, I did. But I didn’t think it would happen like this.

To be fair, Los Angeles has a few key injuries to deal with. But they also aren’t playing like a team expected to win it all. The coach benched last season’s rookie of the year for lack of hustle last weekend. If it was meant to wake the team up, early returns are it backfired.

After losing a series to the more-injured Giants, the Dodgers find themselves in fourth place at 12-15. The Giants, working with two-fifths of their projected starting rotation, are at 14-14 and the Rockies are just ahead at 15-14.

But the Arizona Diamondbacks are the talk of the division, if not the league. At 19-8, they show no signs of weakness or letdown after last season’s quick playoff ouster. There is no reason not to expect them to play well all season long.

The Diamondbacks play 7 of their next 10 games against the Dodgers. They can put the Dodgers in a huge hole or get pulled back to the pack by mid-May.

San Francisco will start getting pitchers back soon to help the surprising Johnny Cueto (3-0) and the rest of the staff. If their starting position players stay healthy, they will stay in contention.

Colorado have a tough stretch coming up, facing the Cubs, Mets, and Brewers to start May. If they can get through that and remain in contention, it could prove they are for real.

Which means the Dodgers need to get their act together soon to climb back into this thing.

Wild Card: It’s a free-for-all

With three or four teams fighting for each division title, it makes sense that the wild card will be decided late. The West teams were the preseason favorites, but the race is tightening quickly.

Milwaukee and St Louis could take advantage of a weak central division and rack up enough wins to sneak into the mix.

Philadelphia might have some staying power, as do the Mets. Unless Washington implodes, two eastern teams could be fighting for a post season berth, too.

It all adds up to a potentially exciting season for the National League, especially if the Dodgers and Nationals don’t rebound completely.