Tony La Russa's somewhat banged-up team saddled up for an 18-8 September to overtake the seemingly anointed Braves for the National League Wild Card entry.
The Cardinals saddled Atlanta -- which led them by 8 1/2 games on Sept. 1 (and 10 1/2 games on Aug. 25) -- with the biggest September collapse out of a postseason berth in Major League history -- for a few minutes, until the Rays, who trailed Boston by nine after August, passed that monkey on to the Red Sox.
Of all their possible NLDS matchups, this could be least favorable to the Phillies. By personally eliminating the Braves, they arranged a date with the only team against which they had a noteworthy losing record (3-6).
Philadelphia also dropped two out of a three-game Interleague series to Seattle, and dropped 10 of 18 to the Nationals. But no team gave it as hard a time as St. Louis, which hung five of the wins on the Phillies' postseason rotation: One each on Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels, two on Roy Oswalt.
But you know what? Waiting for the pieces to fall into place, the Phillies claimed to not care who would draw the short straw.
"You can't be scared, and you can't look to dodge nobody," manager Charlie Manuel had said. "Bring 'em on. Let's get 'em. Line 'em up. Whatever.
"I look at it like Walter Alston used to say," added Manuel, citing the late Hall of Fame manager of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers. "Champions can beat anybody."
And you know what else? This was the very first season La Russa got the better of Manuel, and they've been matching wits for nine years, including Interleague meetings when Manuel manned the Indians. Overall, Manuel has a 33-25 edge over the Hall of Fame-bound La Russa.
The Cards faced their demise the last two weeks. Demise blinked. The Redbirds' attitude was that, as put into words by third baseman David Freese, "Losing is not an option, and we know that."
The prize for such persistence? Getting to deal with the Majors' top team, but the Cardinals gladly take the 102-win Phillies over getting eighty-sixed into winter.
The Phillies didn't spend a second of the 2011 season in any place other than first. Riding on the broad shoulders of four high-profile pitchers who lived up to their billing -- and to their paychecks -- they fed dust to the rest of the National League East.
Only in the eleventh hour did the Phillies find out who they will be playing in this Division Series. But the Phillies knew all along that they would be in it, knew as early as last Dec. 13, when Lee returned for some more Brotherly Love next to Halladay, Hamels and Oswalt.
"We'll win 100 games." Jimmy Rollins said, before the ink had dried on Lee's contract. J-Roll sold his team short. But the Phillies have to check every one of their wins at the boarding gate for the NLDS.
So only now does the Phillies' mission really begin, with Saturday's Game 1 in Citizens Bank Park, Doc vs. Edwin Jackson.
The Phillies don't want to become the 1954 Cleveland Indians, who won 111 games with their era's comparably dominant rotation -- then were swept out of the postseason, which at the time consisted of only the World Series, by the New York Giants. They need to become the team that gives the National League consecutive World Series titles for the first time since 1979-1982, when the Pirates, the Phillies, the Dodgers and the Cardinals passed around the trophy.
With the luxury of having nearly two weeks to line up his rotation since the team clinched its fifth straight division title on Sept. 18, Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel will go with Lee in Game 2 and with Hamels when the venue shifts to St. Louis on Tuesday for Game 3. If needed, Oswalt will get the ball on Wednesday in Game 4.
Both franchises have been around since 1892, but this is the first time they meet each other in a postseason setting.
St. Louis managed to seal its deal without Matt Holliday, whose right hand is sore enough to jeopardize his series availability, and right-hander Adam Wainwright, who had 39 wins the last two seasons and Tommy John surgery in February.
Allen Craig figures to be in left field for the Cardinals. He went 12-for-32 (.375) the last 10 days of the season, while primarily subbing for Holliday.
The centerpiece in their lineup remains Albert Pujols, who put up a typical 37-homer, 99-RBI season, but Lance Berkman has been a real life saver (.302, with 31 homers and 93 RBIs).
The Phillies depended on Ryan Howard (33 homers, 115 RBIs), but as conceived, were more reliant on their Mount Rushmore rotation. No one else drove in more than 84 runs or had more than 20 homers (Raul Ibanez on both counts).
The Phillies are whole. Hunter Pence, their key Trade Deadline acquisition from Houston, suffered a slight strain of the patellar tendon of his left knee last week, but was able to play down the stretch after missing a couple of games.
However, all of the Phillies are spent, and welcomed the two days off between the first and second seasons. Due to having to make up earlier rainouts with doubleheaders, they played 33 games in the season's final 31 days.
And they did not play all of them well, in fact spinning through an eight-game losing streak not broken until the weekend.
While that stretch was unwelcome, one of the postseason veterans of the team passed out chill pills. Chase Utley knew all along his boys would have their big-game faces on at the right time.
"Through the course of the season, things like that are going to happen. It's better to happen now than in the playoffs," Utley said. "When you lose, you can learn a lot about yourself and how you deal with that failure. And that's what separates the men from the boys."
Learning from failure is one thing the Phillies have had few opportunities to do since 2007. They hope to not get schooled this time around, either.