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Cubs welcome tough competition from Brewers

NL Central rivals open four-game series at Miller Park
MLB.com @CarrieMuskat

MILWAUKEE -- All those years in the American League East taught manager Joe Maddon an important lesson: If you want to be a good team, you have to play good teams. He feels that way now about the National League Central.

"I like playing good teams -- it's good for you, it's good for us," Maddon said prior to the opener of a four-game series between his Cubs and the Brewers. "I like that they are as good as they've gotten, and I like that in the division. I'm used to that, coming from the other league and playing in the American League East. It was stuffed with really good teams, and I think that brings out the best in your group."

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MILWAUKEE -- All those years in the American League East taught manager Joe Maddon an important lesson: If you want to be a good team, you have to play good teams. He feels that way now about the National League Central.

"I like playing good teams -- it's good for you, it's good for us," Maddon said prior to the opener of a four-game series between his Cubs and the Brewers. "I like that they are as good as they've gotten, and I like that in the division. I'm used to that, coming from the other league and playing in the American League East. It was stuffed with really good teams, and I think that brings out the best in your group."

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Last year, the Cubs had to rally from 5 1/2 games back at the All-Star Game to top the Brewers and win the NL Central.

"You have two teams with high aspirations," Chicago's Anthony Rizzo said. "They're expecting to win the division, we're expecting to win the division. The Cardinals are expecting to win. ... It's fun to play [the Brewers], it's fun to play here -- I enjoy this stadium, and we enjoy this stadium."

The Cubs were grateful to be in a domed stadium. Their game Tuesday in Cincinnati was postponed because of rain, and it felt more like December than April in Milwaukee on Thursday.

"I think [the Brewers'] fans are as excited as they've been in a long time," the Cubs' Ben Zobrist said. "As a club you can see them playing with a lot of confidence. Everybody's picking us to win the division, and this is one of our primary competitors that we'll have to battle. They're ready to play us, and we need to show up and win this series. It's a big series, even though it's the first time we're playing them all year. We want to get things going right."

Not much clutch
The Cubs entered Thursday scuffling with runners in scoring position, batting .137 in the first five games.

"We're talking as a group," Zobrist said. "I think everybody's still learning. Everybody is in a growth, learning mindset in regard to their own swing and how they can get going quicker. We've done a better job than I've ever seen any team do in bouncing things off each other early in Spring Training and early in the season.

"Everyone can rest assured there are a lot of conversations happening behind closed doors, and there is a lot of thought being put into what's happening on the field. You still have to go out and execute and find a way to get things going. The right thoughts are happening."

Maddon has seen it.

"They're very communicative," Maddon said. "It goes beyond baseball. They're talking about everything in there. They're very interactive, is the best way I can describe it."

Worth noting
• Former catcher David Ross, now a special assistant in the Cubs' front office, met with families on Thursday in Chicago during a diaper donation event with Walgreens and Huggies to raise awareness for the one in three U.S. families in need of diapers. Through April 29, consumer purchases of Huggies at Walgreens will spark a donation of a day's worth of diapers to the National Diaper Bank Network.

• Maddon didn't swing by Wrigley Field on the off-day Wednesday to see the changes on the field and the new dugouts, but he took advantage of the time to unpack and get settled.

"I had a big league day off, and that did not include going to Wrigley," Maddon said. "I'll be there like 90-some times this year."

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. You can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat.

Chicago Cubs