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Paul Sullivan: After a brief lull, we now return to our regularly scheduled baseball season

After chilling out the last few days – whether at home, the All-Star Game or their favorite hideaways – the Cubs and Cardinals are back on the clock Thursday night in the second-half opener at Wrigley Field.

ESPN has turned it into a thing, of course, making the Cubs and Cards end their breaks early for a national TV audience thirsting for baseball after a one-day lull following the All-Star Game. They can’t complain about it because they play baseball for a living. Suffice to say everyone would appreciate an extra day of rest after 3 1/2 months of work, but they’re glad to resume their classic rivalry for the good of the game.

So what’s in store for baseball in the second half?

More of the same – strikeouts, home runs and endless debates about infield shifts. Along with those essential ingredients of modern-day baseball, here are a few other storylines worth following.

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This Yankees-Red Sox race might be the best yet, especially now that the Red Sox – with a 4 1/2-game division lead – are the Evil Empire and the Baby Bombers are the scrappy underdogs. It’s so delicious Commissioner Rob Manfred unapologetically opened his news conference Tuesday by gushing over baseball’s good fortune. “We had some of our iconic franchises, most notably the Yankees and the Red Sox, having unbelievable years,” he said. “I know people take a different view of that. But against the backdrop of the amount of competitive balance that we’ve had in baseball over the last two decades, I don’t think we should have to apologize that we have two really great clubs out there, and it looks like it’s going to be a good race all the way through September.” It does, and believing Yankees-Red Sox is great for baseball isn’t just East Coast bias.

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Glasnost is underway in St. Louis, where the long reign of the La Russa-Matheny rule ended Saturday with the firing of manager Mike Matheny, who turned out to be Tony La Russa Lite. Their 1960s-style methods of micromanaging the clubhouse seemingly are over, and we’ll see if Cardinals players are less uptight under interim manager Mike Shildt. They still can scare teams, though not so much – so far. Dexter Fowler remains a focal point after his mind-numbing first half – he’s hitting .176 – and the public finger-pointing by general manager John Mozeliak. At least Fowler will get some love this weekend in Chicago.

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The Cubs brass watched with bemusement in May when the Manny Machado rumors went into hyper-drive during the Orioles’ trip to White Sox Park. Even a couple of months after team President Theo Epstein shot down the speculation, Cubs shortstop Javier Baez was asked about the possibility of getting Machado. “Obviously it would be a huge thing for our lineup,” he said at the All-Star Game in Washington. “But we obviously already have Addison (Russell), and Addy has been great for us with the crazy plays he makes and with him and me up the middle.” Machado reportedly is heading to the Dodgers, where the Mannywood signs were put in storage after Manny Ramirez’s stormy exit. This edition of Manny Watch officially has been canceled. We think.

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It’s hard to distinguish the tankers from the accidental tankers without a scorecard. But the Royals, Orioles and White Sox remain the creamed of the crop for the Tony Clark Cup. It was Clark, the players union chief, who railed against the “race to the bottom” at the start of spring training, proclaiming tanking bad for the game. But the Orioles overpaid free agent Alex Cobb last winter and the Royals didn’t declare “rebuild,” so the Sox are the only one of the three tanking with good intentions. Jose Abreu said he prays the Sox don’t deal him. They probably won’t, though it’d be nice to see him win once in a while.

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The Brewers ended the first half with a six-game losing streak, blowing their first-place lead to the Cubs like they did last July, albeit a few weeks earlier. They begin the second half Friday with the potential distraction caused by reliever Josh Hader, whose racist and homophobic tweets from seven years ago resurfaced Tuesday night during the All-Star Game. Can Hader restore his reputation, and if not, will his career suffer? He’s averaging a major-league-leading 16.69 strikeouts per nine innings and is irreplaceable in the bullpen. The baseball world will be watching, and for decades social media classes will refer to this incident as a teaching moment for kids with cell phones.

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Nationals fans celebrated Bryce Harper’s Home Run Derby title Monday night like a playoff win, which shows you how thirsty they are for something positive to happen. “We went through some adversity through the first half with all the injuries,” first-year manager Dave Martinez said. “But hey, you know what? The boys play hard and kept it all together. We’re in a good position now, only 5 1/2 games back.” Martinez was Cubs bench coach last year when they emerged from a first-half hibernation to coast to a division title. “Quite a few teams have done that,” he said. “We’ve got a good team, and when our pitching staff is healthy, they can carry us a long way.” Stephen Strasburg and Ryan Zimmerman return Friday, which should help them catch the Phillies and Braves. The key, naturally, is Harper. He was clutch against Kyle Schwarber in the final round of the derby. But it was only an exhibition. Now it’s real again.

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The Astros still have the best starting pitching in baseball, with their rotation going 47-21 with a major-league-leading 3.02 ERA. The Astros also rank second to the Red Sox in runs scored with 500. It seems as if they have a great shot at becoming the first team to repeat since the Yankees won three straight titles from 1998-2000, but everyone warned them about the Cubs’ World Series hangover last year. “We’re not the Cubs,” left-hander Dallas Keuchel told the Washington Post in spring training. “I firmly believe we have better players.” Perhaps Keuchel was right – the Astros haven’t shown any signs of a hangover. Maybe hair of the dog really works.

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Baltimore Orioles' Manny Machado, right, celebrates with New York Yankees' Aaron Judge, left, after Judge's second inning home run against the National League during the Major League Baseball All-Star Game on Tuesday, July 17, 2018 at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

Baltimore Orioles’ Manny Machado, right, celebrates with New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge, left, after Judge’s second inning home run against the National League during the Major League Baseball All-Star Game on Tuesday, July 17, 2018 at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

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