Brewers general manager David Stearns said all the right things during the final days of Spring Training, though it's fair to wonder just how much of it he truly believed.
Rather than be intimidated, the Cubs' emergence as a potential dynasty was both motivating and energizing for Milwaukee. Stearns didn't go so far as to predict the Brewers were ready to topple the defending champions this season, but he wasn't ready to concede anything, either.
"We're certainly not backing down from it," Stearns said in late March.
Milwaukee has done more than just stand up to the rest of its division. The Brewers entered June in sole possession of first place in the National League Central, a scenario even the wildest dreamer would have had trouble envisioning two months ago.
"We're almost a third of the way through the season, and we're still in first place," Ryan Braun said. "There probably wouldn't have been anybody outside of our organization that thought we had any chance to be in this position now."
Let's be honest, even those inside the organization couldn't have seen this coming. Not with the Cubs expected to carry their magical 2016 into '17.
Braun is one of the few players on the roster who knows what winning in Milwaukee feels like, having played on the 2008 and '11 teams that mark the franchise's only playoff qualifiers of the past 35 years. The only other player from those two teams still wearing a Brewers uniform? Craig Counsell, Braun's former teammate who now serves as his manager.
That 2011 trip to the NL Championship Series feels like a lifetime ago for the Brewers, but even as they lost 89 games last year, Braun sensed a change taking place. The win-loss record may have been unsightly, but the vibe inside the clubhouse had a far better feeling.
"We competed well last year, which doesn't sound like a great accomplishment," Braun said. "But we had some young players like Keon Broxton and Jonathan Villar who got an opportunity to establish themselves for the first time as Major Leaguers, so now it's a matter of building upon that and doing it again.
"You've seen guys that have come up and had success for a short amount of time, but the challenge is doing it consistently over as long a period of time as possible."
For those who think the Brewers are lucky to be in the position they are, Counsell points to games they have given away -- they've suffered four walk-off losses and are 4-7 in one-run games through Wednesday -- and believes they could be even further ahead of the pack with a different bounce or two.
"I don't feel like we've overachieved, really," Counsell said. "I feel like we've let a lot of games slip away, frankly. Sometimes you walk away thinking, 'Man, we could have a better record than this.' But I say it all the time. You earn your record."
Stearns addressed a glaring weakness this offseason, adding a pair of left-handed bats to play the corners. Eric Thames and Travis Shaw have provided well-rounded stability in the middle of the lineup, settling into the No. 2 and 4 spots, respectively.
Thames' journey from Korea back to the Majors has been well-documented, but Shaw's path from Boston to Milwaukee has been just as important. His up-and-down 2016 left the Red Sox unconvinced that he was a part of their future, resulting in the December trade that sent him and two Minor Leaguers to the Brewers for reliever Tyler Thornburg.
The change of scenery -- and promise of regular playing time -- helped Shaw relax at the plate and in the field, contributing to his strong start to the season.
"Everybody considers this a rebuilding team, but we've played pretty well," Shaw said. "We have young, hungry guys; when young teams click all at once, that can be a special thing. I thought if we could hang around .500 for most of the year, we'd give ourselves a chance to go into September playing meaningful games. Right now, we're doing that and taking care of our business."
Thames' awesome April gave way to a mediocre May, while Braun had only 16 at-bats last month thanks to a calf injury that has him back on the disabled list. But Braun noted that the lower half of the 40-man roster is "significantly better than it's ever been" during his 11 seasons in Milwaukee, allowing the Brewers to survive -- thrive, even -- when their big bats aren't producing.
"It shows us we have depth throughout our roster," Stearns said. "Guys like Jesus Aguilar, Eric Sogard, Domingo Santana and Hernan Perez have been able to pick up the slack when some of our other bigger bats are either out of the lineup or cooling off. We know Ryan is going to be back at some point and we know Eric is going to get it going at some point, and when they do, our lineup will be even stronger."
With the non-waiver Trade Deadline about eight weeks away, Stearns will need to decide whether to invest in a piece or two if the Brewers are still at or near the top of the division.
"We're certainly open to evaluating all possibilities," Stearns said. "We recognize what our long-term plan is, and we're not going to stray from our long-term plan. In terms of what specific direction we'll go, we have eight weeks to figure that out."
The Cubs are still the popular choice to win the NL Central, but Counsell and his players aren't worried about such things.
"We're in first place and it's June 1," Shaw said. "If you had told anybody in here that we would be in first place -- or even close to first place -- on June 1, I think everybody would have taken it. We're just trying to hang around as long as we can, make it a fun summer in Milwaukee."