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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Monday, June 25, 2012 at 9:32 PM

Yesterday we viewed the American League landscape while outlining the pennant races in each division. As promised, we’re back today to do the same thing in the National League. There are several interesting stories already in play including the surprising Washington Nationals. And, some new stories may be percolating based on early indicators.

We’ll start in the NL EAST, where it’s hard to find any evidence that the NATIONALS are some kind of pretender. Often with teams who come out of nowhere in the first half of a season, you see lucky breaks in close games, or a key player doing something that’s way over his head, or an easy early schedule that created illusions that can’t possibly hold up.

With Washington, well, they might even be better than you were thinking!

*The Nats are 14-8 in divisional play, and they’re in the toughest NL division.

*The Nats just went 10-8 in Interleague play, drawing the toughest division in baseball

*The Nats are 14-12 in one-run games, which makes them a stellar 27-17 in all others

*The Nats are getting across-the-board contributions on the mound and offensively

Stick this team in the NL Central, and they might be 3-4 games better in terms of their won-lost record. Give this team a friendlier IL slate, and that’s a few more games that might go their way. The blossoming of Stephen Strasburg, and the domination of Gio Gonzalez (a good AL pitcher stepping down to the softe league) has given the team a formidable one-two punch at the top of the rotation.

The METS are within striking distance, and they also have a lot of clean numbers. No abnormal luck in close games. They also have a good record vs. their own tough division, and they managed an 8-7 mark vs. the AL despite going 1-5 vs. the powerhouse Yankees. Plus, their offense is better than you think. Playing home games in a pitcher’s park has hidden that. We see New York as a clear Wildcard though playing in a tough division down the stretch won’t do them any favors.

Falling on hard times lately are the BRAVES, MARLINS, and PHILLIES…all of whom looked like contenders at one point this season before turning mortal. Atlanta is just 12-18 its last 30 games. Miami is even worse at 11-19, triggered by a collapse in Interleague. Philadelphia hit a recent road block as well. It wasn’t that long ago that this whole division was at .500 or better. Now the Marlins and Phils have to get hot just to get back to break even…and it’s not like break even is going to make the playoffs.

Over in the NL CENTRAL, the REDS were dominating the field until their ace reliever lost his ability to overpower people. Maybe it’s from opponents getting a book on him. Maybe it’s from stepping up in class to face the superior AL. Or, maybe it’s just fatigue after carrying so much on his shoulders to start the season. But, Aroldis Chapman isn’t frightening people any more, which makes Cincinnati tight lead even flimsier.

The PIRATES sat in second place, just a game out of first when Interleague ended. This is a team that’s had respectable starts before only to collapse down the stretch. They do have more veterans this time around, and more weaponry. Do they have what it takes to contend for SIX months instead of just three? We’ll believe it when we see it.

Injuries haven’t been kind to the CARDINALS, but they sitting fairly pretty considering everything they’ve gone through. Can they tread water until some healthy bodies come back? In a lousy division, that’s certainly possible. The Reds have drifted back to the Cards in recent days, creating the potential for a fascinating race. Note that St. Louis has had very bad luck in close games and extra inning affairs. In that light, we see them as a better divisional or Wildcard threat than Pittsburgh.

You can’t take the BREWERS, CUBS, or ASTROS seriously as threats this year. Milwaukee does have time to get things back in gear…and it’s not as hard to make a second half run when you play in a bad division. But…they haven’t been able to replace Prince Fielder offensively…and what looked to be an awesome pitching staff at the start of the season has turned mortal.

Over in the NL WEST, things are getting very interesting. The DODGERS still lead the way, but going 13-17 the past month has cast doubts on whether or not the team will be able to keep it together. The GIANTS are still very much in the race even though Tim Lincecum has been abysmal. Should he get things figured out, San Francisco basically becomes the best team in the league. If you turned half of his losses into wins they’d be best right now!

Don’t lose track of the DIAMONDBACKS. They’ve gone 18-12 over their last 30 games, and they could easily move into the Wildcard picture with some authority if that keeps up. Given the nature of imbalanced schedules, the quality of the bottom two teams in the West could determine who gets the Wildcards. San Francisco and Arizona may have a better chance to get rich in their division than the NY Mets and Atlanta do in theirs.

Down at the bottom of the West, the ROCKIES and PADRES may have momentary glimpses of competitiveness. But, the talent just isn’t there to be relevant. Nor is the management apparently!

It may not be GREAT baseball given how the NL just fared against the AL over the past few weeks. But, there will likely be great drama in all three divisional races and the crowded Wildcard picture down the stretch in the senior circuit.

For now, we see it this way:

Probable Playoff Teams: Washington, LA Dodgers, San Francisco

Likeliest Wildcards (2 spots): NY Mets, Atlanta, NL West runner up (LAD/SF), Arizona

Central Survivor: Cincinnati, St. Louis, and maybe even Pittsburgh

The reason we scheduled the NL article for Tuesday was because Arizona and Atlanta were starting a very important three game series Tuesday Night. Yes, LA Dodgers/San Francisco is a huge rivalry that’s rightfully getting most of the attention in these early days of the new week. Neither the D-backs nor the Braves can afford any dead spots right now. Pay attention whenever Wildcard contenders are going head-to-head.

JIM HURLEY may or may not be releasing BLOCKBUSTER selections in those two NL slobberknockers. But, you can be assured you’re getting the best plays on the board when you purchase each day’s selections. In addition to those NL affairs, we’re looking in the AL at LA Angels/Baltimore, Cleveland/NY Yankees, Toronto/Boston, and Detroit at Texas for serious play. Take care of business any time during the afternoon here at the website (all games are under the lights). If you have any questions, call us in the office at 1-800-323-4453.

Be sure to ask about football when you call! The dollars of August multiply themselves over several times from Preseason action through the Super Bowl. The more money you make early…the more money you make when it’s all said and done. And, taking advantage of early-bird offers means you save big money up front. That helps you pyramid your profits even more!

Back with you Wednesday to talk about Roy Oswalt and the Texas Rangers as they get ready for a national TV game in prime time on ESPN. Wall-to-Wall baseball continues through June and early July until we get to our annual college football conference previews in a few weeks.

The summer is heating up…and there’s no handicapper hotter than JIM HURLEY!

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