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The Chicago Cubs are getting the band back together just in time to make a big run toward the playoff bracket in September.

Utility player Ben Zobrist is back from his months-long personal leave to fill the lead-off void. He reached base five times and scored three runs Thursday night as the Cubs overpowered the Milwaukee Brewers 10-5 to open their four-game series.

"He's a great example setter," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "He's been doing it for years. He looks very frisky right now. There is every reason to believe he should be able to continue those kind of at-bats."

In nine plate appearances since his return, Zobrist has reached base seven times. He also set a grinding tone at the top of the order, working the opposing pitcher in each at bat.

"That's the kind of thing that you feel good about, just setting the table for those guys coming up behind me," Zobrist said. "They've been hitting the ball really well.

"It's just nice to know that the pressure's not on. I just focus on finding a way to get on base."

Zobrist, 38, is enjoying the playoff race after his time away from the game to deal with his divorce.

"That's the nice thing about this," Zobrist said. "I'm not playing for statistics. I'm just playing for W's. That's the important thing right now."

The Cubs got catcher Willson Contreras back to active duty after he suffered a hamstring muscle strain. And slugger Kyle Schwarber has been locked in, posting a 300/.406/.722 slash line since Aug. 1.

Schwarber's grand slam finished off the Brewers on Thursday.

"It's just really, really impressive watching him in the last few games," Zobrist said. "Line drives, but hitting the ball to all fields and taking a pitch like that on a lefty, bases loaded, was really impressive."

On the down side for the Cubs, Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel is back on the injured list with a sore elbow. Like Greg Holland before him, he reminded us that aging relievers can be a poor investment -- especially if they don't go through regular spring training preparations.


Here's what folks have been writing about Our National Pastime:

Bob Nightengale, USA Today: "Three months ago, All-Star pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel were the poster boys of Major League Baseball free-agency gone wrong, sitting home all winter, all spring and into the summer waiting for a job. Now, with just a few weeks left in the season, Keuchel and Kimbrel find themselves playing crucial roles in the postseason race. Keuchel is helping lead the Atlanta Braves to first place and a 6 ½-game cushion in the NL East, while Kimbrel is closing out games for the Cubs, who are chasing the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central, and have a 2 ½-game lead for the second wild-card spot. It’s possible a month from now the Braves and Cubs could be playing one another in the first round of the National League playoffs, with these two outcasts in free agency on full display."

Zach Kram, The Ringer: "Since May 23, the Nationals are an MLB-best 58-28 and have a scorching run differential that ranks second only to the Dodgers’ over that span. By both record and run differential, the Nationals/Expos have never had a better 86-game stretch in franchise history. And it is this current run—as well as the underlying factors that have made it possible—that have the franchise positioned, possibly, for its first lengthy playoff campaign. Washington has regained its preseason aura in the typical manner for the franchise: by relying on its stars. Using FanGraphs’ version of WAR, Washington’s top five players this year have combined for 26.4 WAR, a narrow second to Houston top five’s 26.7 for the MLB lead."

Jon Paul Morosi, "While one source made clear (Stephen) Strasburg has not made any firm decisions about his future, there’s increasing speculation in the industry that he will opt out of the remaining four years and $100 million left on his contract with the Nationals -- or at least leverage that possibility into getting a new, larger contract. Strasburg is expected to review his options after the season with his agent, Scott Boras. One central question is whether Strasburg, if he were a free agent, could top the $25 million average annual value on his current contract, which is a seven-year deal he signed three years ago to cover 2017-23. His current deal is worth a total of $175 million with opt outs after this season and next, and, notably, will pay him $45 million in the final year of the deal if he plays it out. It also includes $70 million in deferred payments to be paid in annual installments of $10 million from 2024-30, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts. Beyond the financial factors, another consideration is whether Strasburg is interested in pitching closer to his native San Diego. If Strasburg opts out, Boras will exert even greater influence on this winter’s free-agent market. Boras also represents prospective free agents Gerrit Cole and Anthony Rendon, along with Boston’s J.D. Martinez, who has an opt-out clause."

Tim Brown, Yahoo! Sports: "In 2019, the NL West fluttered a weary hand at the Dodgers and let them through, wait ‘til next year or the year after apparently being the better part of valor. The division race was all but over before summer began and will be official before summer ends. Widely regarded as the only team with a chance to put an end to all of this Dodger-ness, as they had played them to a 163rd game last October, the Rockies had D.J. LeMahieu and Adam Ottavino leave by free agency, had Kyle Freeland devoured by the sophomore slump monster, had an emerging starting rotation fall apart, and what it looks like at the end is a team that never had a chance.  It happens. It happens to every team. The spoils of victory bear unconscious heaviness. Good luck is chased by bad luck. Today’s Cy Young candidate is tomorrow’s Triple-A underachiever. The days get long and hope leaves faster than the turnstile can spin. It’s hard to win, to show up and resume a fight that can’t be won for another four or five or six months, to lose at the end and commit again to all the inches that make up the proper and righteous journey."


“I get to go re-test the waters again, and have fun in the offseason again. I have no idea what to expect. I just never understood the fact that baseball is such a lengthy free agency when it’s such a frenzy when the NFL and NBA opens up. It's sharks in the water going after guys. I just don’t get it when the money is beau coups in baseball. The rules say teams can’t talk to other teams, and MLB can’t give out what a team offers a player receives from teams, but when you’re getting the same exact offers from seven teams, that’s a little weird, isn’t it?’’

Dallas Keuchel, to USA Today, on his looming free agency.

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Jeff Gordon is an online sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.