Ryan Dempster's successful return to the starting rotation has helped the Cubs to an early lead in the NL Central this season.

The right-hander struck out a career-high 12 over 8 1/3 innings in Thursday's 4-0 win against the Padres and pushed his record to 5-1. He now has a 2.35 ERA, a 1.05 WHIP and opponents are batting just .172 against him in 57 1/3 innings over nine starts.

"He's been pitching very well," Cubs manager Lou Piniella told MLB.com. "He's got the good breaking ball, the nice live fastball, and he's got that split-finger. He's got a good combination of pitches. Today he was throwing strike one, getting ahead of the hitters. That's really a key for him."

The Cubs are 7-2 in Dempster's starts.

Kazmir makes long-term plans with Rays: Scott Kazmir is no longer questioning the Tampa Bay Rays' commitment to winning. After balking about agreeing to a long-term deal last year, the left-handed pitcher has changed his mind and agreed to a four-year deal to remain with the team. By agreeing to the deal, Kazmir will forfeit up to two years of free agency, but gains added security with the Rays.

"They really stepped up," Kazmir told The St. Petersburg Times."It was just being in Spring Training and getting the vibe from everyone. We've got a young group of guys that are going to be here for a while. It's a great bunch of guys, and you look around and realize we could be really good in the next couple years. I was like, I want to be a part of this."

The Rays have also signed Carlos Pena, James Shields and Evan Longoria to long-term deals.

"As we continue to win games and play in October, we envision Scott anchoring the staff for us," executive VP Andrew Friedman said. "We envision it being a series of contracts that keeps Scott in this uniform for a long time."

Braun's deal with Brewers extends to 2015: Ryan Braun was happy to conclude negotiations on an eight-year contract on Thursday. The contract, which runs through 2015, buys out the first two years of the left fielder's free agency.

"I think anybody who says that contract negotiations aren't a distraction is not telling the truth," Braun told Brewers.com. "It definitely comes into play. It definitely factors in. For me, it's great to have that out of the way and be able to focus on baseball and know that I am financially secure for the rest of my life."

Braun has five home runs in the last five games to go along with seven RBIs. He hit two home runs on both Sunday and Monday and added a home run on Thursday. He now leads the team with 10.

Edmonds hopes to win over Wrigley faithful: After long runs with the Angels and Cardinals and a very brief stint with the Padres, Jim Edmonds had a hit in four at-bats in his Cubs debut.

"I've always admired this ballpark and this team and wanted to see what it was like on this side one time," Edmonds told MLB.com. "It's a very unique situation for me, and I'll try to make the best of it."

As for the fans at Wrigley, who often expressed just how much they held him in disdain when he was a Cardinal, he says he hopes to win them over.

"Hopefully, I can get them on my side eventually," Edmonds said.

Janish wins the game with first hit in Majors: Paul Janish had the game-winning hit in his Major League debut -- a 7-6, 10-inning Reds victory over the Marlins on Wednesday.

"Hopefully, it will only get better," Janish told The Cincinnati Enquirer. "But that's going to be hard."

Rogers' fielding ability praised: Kenny Rogers can count among his fans Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who says that Rogers' ability to field his position enhances his pitching ability.

"He is a great fielder," Girardi told The Detroit Free Press. "Kenny doesn't beat himself either. He has the ability to pick people off. He's as good at turning a double play as any pitcher I've ever seen."

Monroe trying to give DH spot a boost: Craig Monroe and Jason Kubel know the Twins need more power out of the DH spot than the 10 home runs it generated last year.

"Every time I'm DH'ing, it's funny because we are like, 'Dude, you have to hit one today, you have to do something big for the DH role,' " Monroe told The St. Paul Pioneer Press. "We kind of have fun with it. We want to do well because that's how this team is going to win games, if we produce."

For Greinke, hitting takes back seat to pitching: Zack Greinke won't allow his at-bats detract from his pitching focus in his interleague start against the Marlins on Sunday.

"I used to get excited [about hitting], but it doesn't matter to me anymore," Greinke told The Kansas City Star. "I'd much rather pitch well than get a hit or two. Whereas in the past, I'd have taken not pitching well if I got a couple of hits or hit the ball well. Now I'm completely focused on pitching and not worrying about the other stuff."

Pitch to the rib cage slows Wigginton: Ty Wigginton is still feeling the pain from getting hit by a pitch in the rib cage last weekend.

"It feels like a knife is going through me," Wigginton told The Houston Chronicle of the pain he felt when he took some swings on Wednesday afternoon. "It still grabs me. Running, it will grab me. I made some progress, but it still grabs me."

Eckstein on target for return from DL: On the disabled list since May 7 with a strained right hip flexor, David Eckstein worked out Wednesday and said he is on schedule to come off the disabled list on May 22.

"That's what we are shooting for," Eckstein told Bluejays.com. "We have a great medical staff there. I was working with them every day. I came out today, and it feels pretty good. Each day, I'm putting a little bit more into what I'm going to be able to do."

Blalock eyes interleague return: Hank Blalock could return to the lineup this weekend against the Astros, The Dallas Morning News reported. Blalock has been out since April 26 due to a partially torn left hamstring. The injury was expected to keep Blalock out for three to six weeks.

The third baseman went through a fielding workout on Wednesday and joined Double-A Frisco Thursday night to begin a rehab assignment.

Jones trying to avoid prolonged bench time: Chipper Jones missed Thursday's game against the Phillies with a sore groin, but he's started 37 of Atlanta's first 40 games this season and believes intelligently managing minor aches and pains will help keep him on the field.

"It's hard to sit out, especially after a good win last night," Jones, who had a home run and a double in an 8-6 win against the Phillies on Wednesday before he was hurt in his ninth-inning at-bat, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "But I'm thinking bigger picture. If I can miss one game here and there to avoid missing six or seven, or a 15-day DL stint, then I have to be smart enough to be able to step aside for one game."

Bennett handles late starting nod with aplomb: Gary Bennett only got 15 minutes' notice of his start, but the Dodgers' backup catcher nonetheless came through with a three-run homer and four RBIs against Brewers ace Ben Sheets.

The last-minute start came when Blake DeWitt was pulled because of a sore back and catcher Russell Martin took his place at third base. Bennett proceeded to power the Dodgers' 7-2 win on Thursday night.

"Sheets is definitely not an easy task," Bennett told The Los Angeles Times. "You prepare for situations just like that. Anything could happen in the game, so I just try to always stay as ready as I can."

Hudson to see familiar faces in box: Tim Hudson, who began his career with the A's, will face his former team for the first time on Saturday, matching up against Rich Harden.

"I was hoping I'd match up against him," Harden told The San Francisco Chronicle. "It should be fun. Any time you face an ex-teammate, whether you're a hitter or a pitcher, it's pretty cool. I tried to learn as much as I could from all those guys -- Hudson, [Mark] Mulder and [Barry] Zito."

Lopez bounces back to lead team in hitting: After a dismal 2007 season marred by the death of his brother, former All-Star Jose Lopez has been one of the Mariners' most productive players this season. In the process, he's moved from No. 8 to No. 5 in the batting order.

"With each position in the lineup, I've got a different job," Lopez, sporting a team-high .315 batting average and a .424 slugging percentage that leads American League second basemen, told The Seattle Times. "With batting second, I've got to move Ichiro to the next base. Batting fifth, you've got to have good concentration. Especially late in a game, guy on second base, you've got to move him over or bring him home."

Lopez credits his resurgence this year to playing winter ball in Venezuela, where he batted fifth in the lineup.

-- Red Line Editorial