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Posted: Friday, March 28, 2014 10:30 am

Stephen Strasburg leads a deep rotation in Washington. Matt Holliday and St. Louis are back again. And the loaded Los Angeles Dodgers think it’s their time to shine.

Yes, it is a very familiar group of favorites. Throw in Freddie Freeman and Atlanta, and the NL list is practically complete. But there’s always one team that crashes the party at the top; see MVP Andrew McCutchen and the 2013 Pirates.

Days after Arizona and Los Angeles started the season Down Under in Australia, the race is on to see which teams will finish on top in the National League.

“Our team’s really good,” Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke said. “We did really good, even with a bunch of injuries last year. We have some young guys about ready to come up if needed. I mean, the expectations should be really high here.”

Washington was among the favorites last year, coming off a breakthrough season. But Bryce Harper was hurt and the Nationals underperformed in their final season under manager Davey Johnson, finishing 10 games back of NL East champion Atlanta.

Enter Matt Williams, who gets his first job as a major league manager after three seasons as Arizona’s third base coach. The rotation is one of the best in the majors, with Doug Fister coming over in a December trade after winning 14 games for Detroit last season. Harper is healthy again, and Strasburg looks just fine following October elbow surgery.

“The more experience you get, the better chance you have to succeed, and I think that’s kind of the lesson from last year,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.

Powered by another great season from Freeman, the Braves breezed to the division title last year. Atlanta has made it to the playoffs in two of Fredi Gonzalez’s first three years as manager, but is still looking to advance for the first time since it lost to Arizona in the 2001 division series.

The rotation was beset by injuries in spring training, but Atlanta should be in the mix again — even after it lost right-hander Tim Hudson and catcher Brian McCann in free agency.

The Central belongs to St. Louis, which has won the division five times in the last decade. There’s no reason to believe the Cardinals won’t make it six times in 11 years.

Adam Wainwright and postseason darling Michael Wacha are part of the division’s best rotation. The lineup remains stacked even after Carlos Beltran departed in free agency. All-Star slugger Allen Craig missed much of the postseason last year, and the Cardinals still made it to the World Series.

The real intrigue in the division comes after the Cardinals. The Central had both wild cards last season, with Pittsburgh making the playoffs for the first time in 21 years and Cincinnati another four games back in the third.

The Pirates and Reds each lost a key player in free agency, while the Brewers get Ryan Braun back from his season-ending, 65-game drug suspension. A.J. Burnett went from the Pirates to the Phillies after a productive two years in Pittsburgh, while the Reds lost leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo to a big contract with the Rangers.

“We’re still hungry,” Pirates catcher Russell Martin said. “We did some special things last year, but everybody was disappointed with how it finished. I don’t know what all the ‘experts’ are saying, but I consider myself an expert and I think we’re going to do better than we did last year.”

The muddled Central could mean another playoff slot for one of the West teams.

Los Angeles’ biggest deal of the offseason was a $215 million, seven-year contract for its own Clayton Kershaw, who won the NL Cy Young Award for the second time in three seasons. Kershaw, Cuban sensation Yasiel Puig and steady Adrian Gonzalez helped the Dodgers all the way to the championship series.

Health is one of the biggest concerns in Southern California, with Matt Kemp coming back from left ankle surgery. If the Dodgers can keep the talented outfielder and shortstop Hanley Ramirez in the lineup alongside Gonzalez, look out.

Arizona made one of the biggest trades of the offseason, acquiring Mark Trumbo from the Angels in a three-team swap that also involved the White Sox. Trumbo hit 34 homers last year and should help protect Paul Goldschmidt in the lineup. The Diamondbacks also signed Bronson Arroyo to provide innings.

The Giants are another team that could surprise. Hudson joins a rotation that also includes 13-game winner Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain, and Michael Morse should add some pop in left field.

“The way this team is put together, everybody has a job and everybody just does their job,” Morse said. “History shows it, this is a winning organization.”

A look at the NL in predicted order of finish:

EAST

WASHINGTON NATIONALS

Adam LaRoche plays great defense, but he slumped last year at the plate. That’s why Zimmerman fielded some grounders at first this spring training. The plan is for Zimmerman to remain at third most days, but more time at the opposite corner might help him stay healthy.

The Nationals finished in the middle of the league in most offensive categories in 2013, and more games for Zimmerman could help improve those numbers. But the rotation is one of the best in baseball and left-hander Jerry Blevins, acquired in a December trade with Oakland, should help the bullpen.

ATLANTA BRAVES

The 24-year-old Freeman hit .319 with 23 homers and 109 RBIs last year, making the All-Star team for the first time. He was rewarded with the biggest contract in franchise history, a $135 million, eight-year deal.

The Braves also agreed to multiyear deals with outfielder Jason Heyward, closer Craig Kimbrel and shortstop Andrelton Simmons. When Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen reinjured their elbows, the Braves signed Ervin Santana to a $14.1 million, one-year contract to bolster their rotation.

NEW YORK METS

Help is on the way for the Mets; it just appears to be at least a year away. Pitching prospects Noah Syndergaard and Rafael Montero showed promise during spring training, and Matt Harvey is rehabbing his surgically repaired right elbow.

In the meantime, free-agent deals for pitcher Bartolo Colon and outfielders Curtis Granderson and Chris Young should be enough to keep New York on top of Philadelphia in third.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Another year, another set of injury concerns for the aging Phillies. Cole Hamels could miss the first month of the season with left biceps tendinitis. Shortstop Jimmy Rollins and second baseman Chase Utley are each 35, and slugger Ryan Howard is 34, making another title run for the accomplished core even more questionable.

MIAMI MARLINS

Giancarlo Stanton should have some more help in the lineup after the Marlins signed Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Garrett Jones and Rafael Furcal, but it likely won’t be enough to move the Marlins out of the NL East basement. Miami has finished last in the division in each of the last three seasons.

CENTRAL

ST. LOUIS CARDINALS

Matt Carpenter moves from second to third base this season after leading the NL in hits (199), doubles (55) and runs (126) last year. Carpenter, who also batted .318 with 11 homers, is one of the key performers in a young Cardinals core that could keep the team in contention for years.

One of St. Louis’ biggest offseason moves was a trade to acquire center fielder Peter Bourjos, who adds more speed to an already dangerous lineup. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta also shores up one of the Cardinals’ weakest positions offensively.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Burnett is gone, but Pittsburgh still has Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole at the front end of the rotation. Liriano won 16 games last year in his first season with the Pirates, and the 23-year-old Cole looks like a star. Touted pitching prospect Jameson Taillon also could make it to the majors this summer.

With his mix of speed and power, McCutchen is one of the majors’ most dangerous hitters. He had a .317 batting average last season to go along with a career-high 38 doubles and a .404 on-base percentage.

CINCINNATI REDS

Billy Hamilton could be one of baseball’s most exciting players this summer. He takes over for Choo in center field after batting .368 with 13 steals in a short stint with the Reds at the end of last year. The big question about the speedster is his ability to get on base, and he showed improved bunting skills during spring training.

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

Matt Garza returned to the NL Central for a big free-agent deal with Milwaukee, joining Yovani Gallardo and Kyle Lohse on top of an improved Brewers rotation. Garza went 6-1 in 11 starts with the Cubs last year before he was traded to Texas in July.

CHICAGO CUBS

The Cubs are hoping new manager Rick Renteria will have a positive effect on first baseman Anthony Rizzo and shortstop Starlin Castro after each young player had a disappointing 2013 season. The focus remains on the future, with slugging prospects Kris Bryant and Javier Baez attracting attention during spring training.

WEST

LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Tough load for Alexander Guerrero, who is moving from shortstop to second base while adjusting to life in the United States. He defected from Cuba last year and agreed to a $28 million, four-year contract with the Dodgers in October. Dee Gordon, Justin Turner and Chone Figgins also were in the mix at second.

Puig made his major league debut last June and hit .319 with 19 homers in 104 games. Will it be a sophomore slump for the strong-armed outfielder, or more of the same? Stay tuned.

ARIZONA DIAMONDBACKS

Arroyo has pitched at least 200 innings in eight of the last nine seasons, and he had 199 innings with Cincinnati in 2011. The durable right-hander also wins, recording at least 12 victories in five of the last six years.

The 37-year-old Arroyo has been bothered by a bulging disk in his back. And that was a relatively minor problem for the Diamondbacks compared to the injury for Patrick Corbin, who had season-ending surgery on his left elbow. At least Arizona has pitching prospect Archie Bradley, who could provide a boost this summer.

SAN DIEGO PADRES

The Padres have a promising rotation in Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy, Tyson Ross, Josh Johnson and Eric Stults. The hard-throwing Cashner, acquired from the Cubs in 2012 trade, went 10-9 last season with a 3.09 ERA in 31 games, 26 starts.

SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

Hudson broke his right ankle while covering first for Atlanta last July 24, ending his season. The Giants are counting on a full recovery for the 38-year-old right-hander after their rotation faltered last year. Hudson had 49 wins for Atlanta from 2010-12.

COLORADO ROCKIES

No more Todd Helton; the longtime first baseman retired after 17 seasons in Colorado. Justin Morneau takes over, but the biggest key for the Rockies could be just keeping sluggers Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez on the field. Tulowitzki played in 126 games last year, while Gonzalez was limited to 110 games.

© 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Area Scoreboard

Area Sports Schedule

American Legion Baseball

Ninth District Senior Legion Tournament

Thursday, July 17

At Westhoff Park

G1 (1) West 11, (8) Pacific 1

G2 (4) St. Charles 17, (5) Elsberry 2

At St. Peters Rec-Plex

G3 (3) Washington 4, (6) Wentzville 0

G4 (2) Daniel Boone 8, (7) St. Peters 2

Friday, July 18

At St. Peters Rec-Plex

G5 Elsberry 8, Pacific 3

G6 St. Peters 9, Wentzville 1

At Westhoff Park

G7 St. Charles 4, West 1

G8 Daniel Boone 7, Washington 4

Saturday, July 19

At St. Peters Rec-Plex

G9 Washington 9, Elsberry 4

G10 West 9, St. Peters 6

G12 West 14, Washington 1

At Westhoff Park

G11 St. Charles def. Daniel Boone (fft)

Sunday, July 20

Rest at Westhoff Park

G13 Championship — West 2, St. Charles 1 (13 innings)

Monday, July 21

G14 If-Needed Game — St. Charles 13, West 11

Zone 1 Senior Legion Tournament

At Lindenwood University, St. Charles

Thursday, July 24

G1 West vs. Daniel Boone Post 262, 5 p.m.

G2 Jefferson City Post 5 vs. Hannibal Post 55, 8 p.m.

Friday, July 25

G3 St. Charles Post 312 vs. G1 winner, 5 p.m.

G4 G1 loser vs. G2 loser, 8 p.m.

Saturday, July 26

G5 G2 winner vs. G3 winner, 10 a.m.

G6 G3 loser vs. G4 winner, 4 p.m.

G7 G5 loser vs. G6 winner, 7 p.m.

Sunday, July 27

G8 Championship — G5 winner vs. G7 winner, 1 p.m.

G9 If-Needed Game — G8 winner vs. G8 loser, 4 p.m.

Ninth District Junior Legion Tournament

Tuesday, July 8

At Union High School

G1 (1) Elsberry 3, (8) New Haven 0

At Ronsick Field

G4 (3) Washington 7, (6) Wentzville 1

G4 (2) Union 8, (7) Hannibal 1

At St. Peters Rec-Plex

G2 (5) St. Peters 8, (4) St. Charles 6

Wednesday, July 9

At New Haven

G5 Wentzville 4, New Haven 0

G6 St. Charles 8, Hannibal 7 (9 innings)

At Ronsick Field

G7 St. Peters 5, Elsberry 2

G8 Washington 2, Union 1

Remainder at Ronsick Field

Thursday, July 10

G9 Union 7, Wentzville 1

G10 Elsberry 3, St. Charles 2

Friday, July 11

G11 Washington 12, St. Peters 11 (10 innings)

G12 Elsberry 6, Union 3

Saturday, July 12

G13 Elsberry 4, St. Peters 3

G14 Championship — Washington 3, Elsberry 1

Washington wins district, to host Zone 1 Tournament at Borgia. Schedule below.

Junior Legion Zone 1 Tournament

At Borgia

Thursday, June 17

G1 Elsberry Post 226 10, Chillicothe Post 25 2

Friday, June 18

G2 Washington Post 218 5, Elsberry 1

G3 Chillicothe 5, Elsberry 4

Saturday, June 19

G4 Championship — Washington 16, Chillicothe 0 (5 innings)

Washington advances to State Tournament in Jackson.

Junior Legion State Tournament

At Jackson

Thursday, July 24

G1 Springfield Glendale vs. Jackson, 3 p.m.

G2 Sedalia vs. Eureka, 5:30 p.m.

Friday, June 25

G3 Washington vs. G1 winner, noon

G4 G1 loser vs. G2 loser, 2:30 p.m.

G5 G2 winner vs. G3 winner, 5 p.m.

G6 G3 loser vs. G4 winner, 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, June 26

G7 G5 loser vs. G6 winner, 1 p.m.

G8 Championship — G5 winner vs. G7 winner, 3:30 p.m.

Sunday, June 27

G9 If-Needed Game — G8 winner vs. G8 loser, 1 p.m.

Freshman Legion Ninth District Tournament

Tuesday, July 8

At Elsberry Legion Field

G1 (1) St. Charles 7, (8) St. Peters 0

G2 (4) Elsberry-Winfield 4, (5) Wentzville 3

At Elsberry Khoury League Field

G3 (3) Hannibal 3, (6) Warrenton 2

G4 (2) Washington 10, (7) West 1

Wednesday, July 9

At Elsberry Khoury League Field

G5 St. Peters 17, Warrenton 6

G6 Wentzville 5, West 4

At Elsberry Legion Field

G7 St. Charles 10, Elsberry-Winfield 2

G8 Washington 3, Hannibal 0

Remainder at Elsberry Legion Field

Thursday, July 10

G9 St. Peters 11, Hannibal 9

G10 Elsberry-Winfield 13, Wentzville 4

Friday, July 11

G12 Elsberry-Winfield 8, St. Peters 3

G11 Washington 6, St. Charles 0, 8:30 p.m.

Saturday, July 12

G13 St. Charles 10, Elsberry-Winfield 1

G14 Championship — St. Charles 5, Washington 2

Sunday, July 13

G15 If-Needed Game — St. Charles 2, Washington 0

Missouri Freshman

Legion State Tournament

At Rotary Recreational

Complex - Ronsick Field

Wednesday, July 16

G1 Creve Coeur Post 397 16, St. Robert Post 331 2

G2 Ste. Genevieve Post 150 4, St. Charles Post 312 0

G3 Jackson Post 158 1, vs. Springfield Glendale Merchants 0

G4 Washington Post 218 9, Eureka Post 177 4

Thursday, July 17

G5 Springfield Glendale 11, St. Robert 1 (St. Robert eliminated)

G6 St. Charles 10, Eureka 2 (Eureka eliminated)

G7 Ste. Genevieve 4, Creve Coeur 2

G8 Washington 12, Jackson 10

Friday, July 18

G9 Jackson 12, Springfield Glendale 0 (Springfield Glendale eliminated)

G10 Creve Coeur 8, St. Charles 3 (St. Charles eliminated)

G11 Ste. Genevieve 3, Washington 2

G12 Creve Coeur 11, Jackson 7 (Jackson eliminated)

Saturday, July 19

G13 Washington 8, Creve Coeur 3 (Creve Coeur eliminated)

G14 Championship—Washington 5, Ste. Genevieve 2

Sunday, July 20

G15 Championship Game 2—Washington 3, Ste. Genevieve 0

Great Midwest Football League

July 19

Missouri Cyclones 34, Illinois Justice 0

Swim Team Schedules

Washington Swim Team

Date    Opponent    Time/Result

6-9    at Oaks Landing    Washington 192-100

6-16    Westglen    Washington 259-206

6-23    at Fox Creek    Washington 311-225

6-30    at Chadwick    Chadwick 264-258

7-7    Cherry Hills    Washington 291-140

7-11 at Division Meet, Westminster Christian First

Pacific Swim Team

Date    Opponent    Time/Result

6-9    Lake of the Woods    LOtW 176-130

6-16    at Union    Union 289-220

6-23    Bridle Creek    Pacific 371-124

6-30    at Arbor Oaks    Pacific 282-241

7-7    at Indian Hills    Cancelled, weather

7-12    Division Meet    First

Union Swim Team

Date    Opponent    Time/Result

6-9    at Arbor Oaks    Union 180-120

6-16    Pacific    Union 289-220

6-23    at Lake of the Woods    LoTW 312-201

6-30    Indian Hills    Union 322-275

7-7    Bridle Creek    PPD

7-12    at Division Meet, Pacific    Third

Pacific Diving Team

Date    Opponent    Time

6-14    at MAC West    MAC West 40-30

6-21    at Lindgate    Lindgate

6-28    at Cool Dell    9 a.m.

7-13    at Championships    8 a.m.

*Indicates League Games

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