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Gut Check: NL West's Best, Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers, Spar Tonight Through Sunday

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The National League West might have three of the top players in the game in L.A.'s Manny Ramirez, San Francisco's Tim Lintecum, and Arizona's Brandon Webb, but it remains one of the sorriest divisions in the bigs.

The West's two presumptive contenders, the Diamondbacks and Dodgers, flip-flopped division titles the last two years, the D-Backs taking it in '07 with the ascension of the Baby Backs, the Dodgers last year with the late addition of Ramirez, who played out of his skull after being traded from the Red Sox.

Both of those crowns look a bit tarnished in retrospect. Last season, the Baby Backs slid into a collective sophomore slump after a world-beating month of April. It's early, but the D-Backs' first three games of this season against the Colorado Rockies smacked of last September. Pee-yew. Speaking of putrid, the '08 Dodgers were like rotting meat on a stick 'til Ramirez's hot bat singlehandedly delivered the title. It's hard to say that either team won the division as much as didn't cough it up.

But a second crown in three years -- and a little bit of vindication -- likely awaits either the D-Backs or Dodgers in '09. Unfortunately, our gut's leaning toward the Dodgers.

Though the teams appear more or less evenly matched on paper -- the Diamondbacks purportedly have the pitching, the Dodgers the hitting -- L.A. has deeper pockets, and it's almost a lock that they'll pursue an ace along the lines of the Astros' Roy Oswalt or the Padres' Jake Peavy prior to the trading deadline. Oswalt/Peavy combined with Hiroki Kuroda as a one-two punch might not be up to Brandon Webb/Dan Haren snuff, but it'd be an intimidating combo in the National League, and especially distressing for the offensively fragile D-Backs.

Then there's Manny. Those who've already handed this year's title to the Dodgers are basing it on the assumption that Ramirez will continue his torrid pace of late '08. Seventeen homers, 53 RBIs, .396 average, .489 on-base percentage, and a .743 slugging percentage in 53 games? Ain't gonna happen again. But here's the real problem for Dodgers head coach Joe Torre: Man-Ram got paid ($45 mil over two years), and an unmotivated Manny Ramirez spells trouble. It's high time for Ramirez to start throwing his usual mental monkey wrenches into the works. Boston fans will understand.

The opportunity's there for the D-Backs, but the gut still says Dodgers.

By default.

The Diamondbacks host L.A. at 6:40 tonight, 5:10 tomorrow, and 1:10 p.m. Sunday at Chase Field. Jon Garland's scheduled to make his regular-season D-Backs debut tonight against young righty James McDonald. Yusmeiro Petit (filling in for the sore-shouldered Brandon Webb, who was scheduled to sub for the sore-shouldered Max Scherzer -- uh-oh) duels Hiroki Kuroda on Saturday. Dan Haren draws Randy Wolf on Sunday.

National TV: MLB TV. Local TV: FSN AZ. Radio: KTAR-AM 620. Info: www.dbacks.com.

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