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Dexter Fowler shines in return: 'It's like coming home'

MILWAUKEE -- The famous ear-to-ear smile is back.

So is the production at the top of the order as Chicago Cubs center fielder and leadoff man Dexter Fowler made his presence known in a big way -- and right away -- against the Milwaukee Brewers, taking the field for the first time since June 18 after recovering from a nagging hamstring injury.

Before he took the field on defense, he made an impact, homering on a 3-1 pitch off Jimmy Nelson to begin a big night at the plate -- and get the Cubs on the board early. It was his fourth leadoff home run this season and 18th of his career.

"Everyone loved it," a smiling Fowler said of his teammates in the locker room after the Cubs' 5-2 win. "Everyone was happy for it. It's like coming back home."

Everyone loved it not only because it gave the Cubs a 1-0 lead but because everyone simply loves Dexter Fowler. The clubhouse is different without him and so are the Cubs. They improved to 44-18 with him in the starting lineup this season.

"It's really apparent how important he is to us," manager Joe Maddon said. "It's really good to have him in there. The guys feed off all that."

Maddon said it "looked right" seeing Fowler in center field joking around with shortstop Addison Russell and right fielder Jason Heyward. It's similar to what he said the day Fowler surprised everyone at spring training when he re-signed with the team. Who knew how important he would be? The Cubs aren't the Cubs without their leader at the top of the lineup.

"It was nice to see him run around out there," winning pitcher Jason Hammel said.

Fowler followed his home run with a two-run double one inning later, but he wasn't done, adding a walk and a single before his night was over. He missed the cycle by a triple in his first live action since pulling up lame at first base over a month ago. His timing was not an issue as he has been hitting off a tee, played one rehab game for Class A South Bend before the All-Star break, followed by a doubleheader Wednesday for Triple-A Iowa.

"Nothing adds up to live pitching," Fowler said. "I was just happy to be back around the boys."

And the boys were happy he was back. Fowler said his hamstring felt fine as he made a first-to-third sprint on a Kris Bryant double in the fourth inning and showed no signs of any lingering issues in center field, where he wasn't really challenged. All in all, it was a great re-start to the season for the man who Maddon always says "you go, we go" to before each game. He never uttered that to Fowler's replacements while he was out.

"I already did that to him in the office," Maddon said before the game with a smile of his own. "It felt so good."