The Sweetest? Maybe Not. The Most Satisfying? Yes.

WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 27: Roy Halliday and Jayson Werth of the Philadelphia Phillies celebrate clinching the National League east title after a baseball game against the Washington Nationals on September 27 2010 at Nationals Park in Washington D.C. The Phillies won 8-0. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

So the champagne and beer has been quaffed, the victory cigars smoked, and the first round of cheers has faded down to a murmur, with an undercurrent of hope that other, louder, more joyous celebrations might follow. But this should be enough right now: for the fourth straight year, the Philadelphia Phillies are the class of the National League Eastern Division.

It’s rare to stay at the top this long: excepting only the unfathomable Braves run of 1991-2005, no other NL team has made four straight postseason appearances since the start of divisional play. This core group of Phillies, led by homegrown stars Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels, has managed to delay, if not deny, the cruelest turn of baseball’s competitive cycle. That they won for three years, in the process evolving from the upstart division champs of 2007 to the almost wire-to-wire pace-setters of 2009, was itself tremendously impressive.

For the first 95 games or so of the 2010 season, it looked like the Phils might have moved on to another, less salutary stage of the competitive cycle: a team laden with high-priced stars past their actuarial primes, beleaguered by injuries, and just maybe not as hungry as they once were. That was what I saw through the middle of July, and I know I wasn’t the only one.

What I’m fairly sure about is that the players in the Phillies clubhouse never saw it that way. For all the injuries—six out of eight position regulars on the disabled list at one point or another, three out of five Opening Day starters, about half each of the bullpen and bench—and the long, baffling slumps of established superstars, they didn’t yield. Charlie Manuel never lowered his expectations or offered them any excuses, and the faith he demonstrated in the likes of Brad Lidge and Raul Ibanez ultimately was rewarded in full. Ruben Amaro Jr. shrugged the all but admitted mistake of trading ace Cliff Lee last December by making a marvelous late July deal for a pitcher, Roy Oswalt, every bit Lee’s equal. Adding Oswalt to Cy Young Award favorite Roy Halladay and Hamels, who recaptured if not exceeded his October 2008 form in the second half, gave the Phils baseball’s best rotation troika—and the finest front three starters the franchise has ever had.

They needed them, plus the annual second-half surge from Joe Blanton, plus the late-season excellence of relievers Lidge and Ryan Madson, because the days of the Phils consistently bludgeoning opponents into submission seem to be over. Even in a year when hitting is down all over baseball, the Phillies will finish the 2010 season far off their recent offensive norms. Injuries sapped the counting totals for Howard, Utley and Rollins, but even when available, none of those franchise cornerstones were quite what they have been. Jayson Werth put up superior overall numbers, but morphed into Abraham Nunez with runners in scoring position. Only Carlos Ruiz turned in his best season with the bat.

This is a different kind of team now, a veteran team that wins with pitching, defense—say what you want about Wilson Valdez at the plate, but the guy filled in at three infield positions and was superb with the glove at all of them—and timely hitting. With that kind of pitching, long slumps are unlikely, and even deep, well-constructed and determined opponents like the Braves team that led the division for much of the summer can be chased down.

It’s also the kind of team built for the playoff games ahead, when the level of competition sharply rises and the pressure is relentless. For the last two Octobers, the Phillies have been masters of the big moment—but randomness rules in a short playoff series, and it wouldn’t be a total shock to see even this Phillies team, the strongest of their four division champs, bounced out before claiming the third straight NL pennant that hasn’t been won by any team since the 1942-44 Cardinals.

Which, in a way, is why this division championship is the most satisfying of the four. In a season when so much did go wrong, and so much more could have, the 2010 Phillies simply refused to stay down, to step aside, to see that their old formula for winning was no longer viable and accept that their moment had passed. They found another way, and re-emerged stronger than ever. For a team, that seems a pretty apt working definition of greatness.

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