By Bruce Levine–

CHICAGO (CBS) — Watching the Cubs’ blue machine in action is a fun exercise for the championship-starved fan base.

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The well-oiled Cubs machine can beat you in many different ways. One night it comes in the form of an 8-7 victory in 13 innings, the next is a 3-0 win on the strength of a masterpiece from Kyle Hendricks backed by a long ball from All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo, as it was Tuesday night against the Pirates at Wrigley Field.

The team’s second-longest-tenured player, Rizzo has been the heart and soul of the Cubs since getting traded to Chicago in 2012. Rizzo gave Hendricks and the bullpen all the runs they needed in the first inning with his 26th home run. He scorched a 2-2 offering from Chad Kuhl over the yellow fence in right field with Javier Baez on board.

“He was throwing all fastballs,” Rizzo said Kuhl. “The last one, he was pretty much trying to stay away. It was a pretty good pitch that I put a short swing on and it went out.”

Rizzo had been in a home run and RBI slump since Aug. 1. Tuesday’s homer was his first long ball since Aug. 14. Rizzo also had the game-winning RBI for a league-leading 17th time this season, which is even with Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado.

The Cubs improved to 21-6 in August and cut their magic number to 18 with 31 games left in the regular season. Although this team is known for taking it one day at a time, Rizzo and company can smell the end game to the regular season and the clincher of division title.

“Yeah, it’s definitely one game at a time,” Rizzo said. “But it is also definitely now, ‘How many games do we have to win to clinch?’ We just have to stay focused and keep going.”

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The Cubs are back to a season-high 37 games over the .500 mark. The always low-key Hendricks was at the top of his game Tuesday night. He won for the 13th time this season, throwing seven shutout innings while allowing just three hits.

“He throws at 88 mph and tops out at 90,” Rizzo said in wonderment of Hendricks. “All he does is get guys out. Everyone else is throwing 90-plus. Kyle is just doing his thing, throwing his 87 or 88 balls and executing so well with his curve, change-up and slider. We always talk to him about it. It’s amazing how he does it.”

Rizzo was the sexy name for MVP before his teammate, Kris Bryant, went on a tear in the last three weeks. Despite the Bryant home run barrage, Rizzo is still in that MVP conversation with a month to go in the season.

Staying away from a poor second half has worked out for Rizzo so far this season. Although the power numbers are down from his pre-All-Star homers and RBI totals, he has maintained a .287 batting average. Rizzo dipped to a .255 average in the second half of 2015.

More rest for the hard-working Rizzo has been a key to a better second half so far in 2016 after he played 160 games last season.

Should the Cubs clinch the NL Central crown soon, there will be more rest in store before the postseason begins.

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Bruce Levine covers the Cubs and White Sox for 670 The Score and CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @MLBBruceLevine.