By MARK KNUDSON     @MarkKnudson41     Special to

Not many around Major League Baseball would dispute that the Los Angeles Dodgers are the best team in baseball’s best division, the National League West. As good as they are however, the Dodgers are still not a lock to capture their fifth straight NL West crown. There’s some stiff competition and as they say, “a lot of baseball left to be played.” LA still has a daunting stretch that lies ahead.

The teams chasing the Dodgers – the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks and the surprising Colorado Rockies – have a Rocky Mountain to climb to be sure. The D-Backs get first crack, beginning a three-game set in LA before the fireworks go off on July 4th. For the red-hot Dodgers, the series with Arizona and another three-game interleague set with Kansas City will take them into the All-Star break having played 20 consecutive games in southern California, including a “trip” to Anaheim and one to San Diego. As good teams do, they’ve taken advantage of this extremely favorable schedule, winning 19 of their last 23 and taking a firm grip on the division race.

The D-Backs have been almost as hot as the Arizona temps outside as well, winning 19 of their past 24 games. The schedule has been kind to them as well – just eight of those two dozen tilts have been road games.

The Rockies, meanwhile, just concluded a stretch that saw them play 20 of 29 games on the road. That included two trips to the west coast sandwiched between a trip to Chicago and Pittsburgh. They concluded the long road swings losing 10 of their last 11. If you watched Colorado play, the road wear was obvious. They began the month of June in first place and limped home seven games back of surging LA. So are the Rockies out of the title race?

Maybe…maybe not. After finally returning home and defeating the Cincinnati Reds in the first of a four-game set, Colorado is 49-36 and 6½ games up for the second wild card spot. They need to right their ship ASAP to be sure, but in terms of extended travel, the worst is behind them. When September rolls around, Colorado will look forward to playing 15 home games, including hosting both their rivals (there are home-and-home match ups for all three) for three game sets. A Rockies – Dodgers series at Coors Field concludes the regular season.

Arizona has a pair of long trips – a 10-gamer and a nine-gamer – during the final two months of the season, and they play just nine more home games in July, so their toughest road still lies ahead. Remember, the dog days have taken a toll on many a young team.

For the front-running Dodgers, they still have to navigate a grueling August. That month Dodger Stadium will host just eight games. The Dodgers have a pair of trips to the desert to face the D-Backs and two eastern swings that month. No one is expecting LA to collapse during this tough stretch, but that will be the time when both Arizona and Colorado will have a chance to gain ground and make it a tighter race.

A mid-season prediction: The NL West will go down to the wire, and all three teams will make the post-season. Expect that on Tuesday, October 3rd, Colorado will send ace Jon Gray to the mound to face Arizona All-Star Zack Grienke at Chase Field in the one-game NL Wild Card tilt. After what is shaping up as a banner year for the NL West, it would be an appropriate and exciting way to kick off MLB’s post season.