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Just in time? Cubs discover urgency in September, beat Brewers for 7th win in 9 games

Ben Zobrist reached base all five trips to the plate from the leadoff spot, and Kyle Schwarber delivered a sixth-inning grand slam as the Cubs won 10-5 to open a big four-game series at Miller Park.

Chicago Cubs v Milwaukee Brewers
No looking back for Ben Zobrist, who reached base five times Thursday and is 4-for-6 with three walks in two games back from a four-month personal leave.
Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

MILWAUKEE – It may not be exactly the kind of “urgency” Cubs president Theo Epstein talked about last winter when he referred to October starting in March.

But Kris Bryant said the Cubs have found that urgency and heightened “focus” in chasing the red-hot Cardinals from behind in the National League Central race.

“I felt like last year we didn’t have that,” said Bryant before the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5 at Miller Park on Thursday for their seventh victory in nine games. “As much as I don’t like focusing on the scoreboard and other teams, when you see a team like the Cardinals doing what they’re doing, it’s kind of like, ‘Hey, we need to put our foot on the gas, too, and keep up with them.’

“We’re kind of on the other side of it now,” he said, comparing it to the streaking Brewers chasing down the Cubs a year ago. “Maybe we need to be on this side, to have that urgency and sense of, ‘OK, let’s get going, let’s grind it out, let’s focus.’ “

Or maybe it’s just Ben Zobrist returning to the top of the lineup after four months away from the team and looking like the second coming of Rickey Henderson.

Either way, Epstein will take any urgency – and certainly any win – he can get these days as the Cubs fight for their October lives during a week in which they put closer Craig Kimbrel (elbow) on the injured list, played again Thursday without shortstop Javy Baez (jammed thumb) and continue to monitor the status of starter Yu Darvish (forearm) into Saturday’s scheduled start.

“When you’re in a race like this someone’s going to get really hot. It happened last year,” Epstein said. “It’s happened this year with the Cardinals. It just underscores the importance of getting hot yourself at the right time of the year.

“We’re not where we want to be in the standings, but I think nonetheless we’re pretty well positioned.”

Especially considering the injuries, up-and-down bullpen performance, lengthy absence of infielder Addison Russell because of a domestic violence suspension and much lengthier absence of Zobrist for personal leave related to marital issues.

In just two games back in the lineup, Zobrist is 4-for-6 with three walks from a leadoff spot that has been a dead spot for the team since he took leave the first week of May.

That included reaching base five times Thursday and scoring three times.

All-Star catcher Willson Contreras’ return after a monthlong hamstring injury has provided a power spark – with two homers and two doubles in his two games back. He doubled twice, homered and singled Thursday.

Did somebody say power? Kyle Schwarber, whose huge August (eight homers, .978 OPS) went almost under the radar, is off to an even better start in September – including a grand slam and a double Thursday.

Even Bryant provided a boost in a his return after missing Tuesday’s game with a flareup of his sore right knee – reaching base three times.

Maybe October didn’t start in March. But the Cubs have more than three weeks to make even a slow-developing team urgency count – with three more games against the Brewers and seven against the Cardinals remaining.

“With the players that we have in place and the roster that we have and the way the guys want it, I think we’re in position to do so,” Epstein said of a strong finish. “But there’s very little margin for error.”

After the Cardinals won for the 21st time in 27 games Thursday afternoon, the Cubs kept pace to remain 2½ games behind.

They also closed to two games behind the Nationals for the top wild-card position and extended their lead for the second wild-card spot to 3½ games over the Diamondbacks and four games over the Phillies.

“It’s in our own hands,” Bryant said.