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Could the Mets prove to be the Nationals' toughest challenge in the NL East?
Yes, the Nats have spent only 10 days outside of first place in the NL East, and all 10 of those days were spent in second place, none of them since May 21.
None of this, of course, guarantees anything. There is still more than half of a full season to be played, and anyone who followed this team during its inaugural 2005 campaign knows all too well how different the standings can look on October 1 vs. July 1.
But if the Nationals were to be overtaken in the NL East, which team would be most likely to do it? Who should the Nats most fear in their division?
The answer isn't as clear as most would have expected when this topsy-turvy season began.
The Phillies, the division's five-time reigning champs, have spent all but seven days in either fourth or fifth place and have offered little reason to believe they're going to turn it around. A lineup and rotation of aging stars hasn't been bolstered by the return of Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard's pending return may not make much difference either. At 36-45, they're an astounding 11 games behind the Nationals and talking about selling off free-agent-to-be Cole Hamels before the end of the month.
The Marlins, who made the division's biggest offseason splash with their Winter Meetings spending spree, are an enigma. On rare occasions, they look like as good a team as there is in the NL, with a potent lineup full of stars and a deep starting rotation. But on far more occasions they've looked like a trainwreck, an inconsistent and oft-feuding club probably takes after combustible manager Ozzie Guillen than owner Jeffrey Loria hoped when he made that hire in the first place. At 38-41, they're not totally out of the race yet. But they're running out of time.
The Braves, the division's most-consistent organization, always seem to find a way to keep themselves in contention. With Jason Heyward re-emerging as a force, Michael Bourn and Martin Prado enjoying fine seasons and rookie Andrelton Simmons off to an impressive start, this is a lineup that should be able to produce. The pitching staff, though, is less of a sure thing, especially with burgeoning Cy Young candidate Brandon Beachy now out for the remainder of the season with a torn elbow ligament. And a bullpen that overwhelmed opponents in 2011 looks far less imposing these days. At 41-38, they're very much in it for now. But the only way these guys are going to overtake the Nationals is if they can find a way to beat them, having gone 2-6 against Washington so far.
Which leaves ... the Mets, a team that wasn't expecting to do anything of consequence this season yet has become one of baseball's biggest surprises. For that, credit the unorthodox-yet-dynamic 1-2 pitching punch of R.A. Dickey and Johan Santana. One's the sport's lone active knuckleballer. The other came back from major shoulder surgery to throw a no-hitter. Together, they've spelled doom for opposing hitters. Throw in a re-energized David Wright at third base, and fans in Flushing have every reason to buy into this as a legitimate contender. Can the Mets, 3 1/2 games back at 43-37, keep this ride going straight into September? With each passing day, they look like less and less of a fluke.
And yet, there the Nationals continue to sit, all alone atop the division, owners of the game's best pitching staff and a lineup that is finally coming together with Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse healthy and productive.
For three months, they unquestionably have been the class of the NL East. Whether they can hold that distinction through the season's final three months remains to be seen.
But given the state of the rest of the division at the moment, they sure have to like their chances.