Ryan Howard swings in his final at bat of the season during the ninth inning of baseball's Game 5 of the NLDS with the St. Louis Cardinals Friday, Oct. 7, 2011. Howard tore his Achilles tendon and the Philadelphia lost 1-0. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Twelve years ago, the Phillies burned through the National League like a fuel truck at the airport. Since then, baseball adopted a clock, extra inning ghost runners, and gambling — in a big way! As summer turned to autumn back then, the Phillies were putting smiles on the faces of their fans; today, they’ve turned those smiling faces into data that definitely won’t become some kind of digital age identification massacre. 

As the Phillies take on the St. Louis Cardinals this weekend, they do it as the team with the better record — something that hasn’t happened at this point in the season since 2011. 

Let’s go through the years and remember the moments that, from then to now, defined each season. Before you think rational things like, “I don’t want to do that,” remember:

Yes, after Raul Ibanez hit the fly ball everyone assumed was the Phillies’ ultimate NLDS game-winner, the Cards slid past them straight to the World Series, effectively ending Ryan Howard’s career with a torn Achilles. 

But then last year, after Tommy Edman popped a ball into foul territory everyone knew was the Phillies’ game-winner, the Phils slid past the Cardinals straight to the World Series, actually ending Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina’s careers. 

So here we go.

Aug. 25, 2012

Phillies: 60-67, 3rd place
Cardinals: 69-57, 2nd place

At some point during the second half, it started dawning on people that the Phillies didn’t have a sixth straight division title in them, nor a miracle wild card berth. They would be relegated to… [horrible retching sound] merely watching the playoffs. Fortunately, the Phils were still able to keep fans engaged by promoting minor league talent like backup catcher Steven Lerud, a move necessitated by Brian Schneider’s hamstring strain. Or would Erik Kratz earn the job outright? It was a thrilling backup catching subplot that somehow did very little to attract more people to games. 

Meanwhile, the Cardinals were chasing the Reds, cutting Cincinnati’s lead down to six games with a comeback victory, and it was wondered if Lance Berkman would even play a game again as he rehabbed a damaged right knee. Tragically, he felt a sense of loyalty to the Cardinals organization, much like legions of deranged Missourians before and after him. Berkman made it no secret that his next few games would likely be the last of his career. If only the end of his career had come a bit sooner, as he would club the deciding run of the 2011 NLDS in the Phillies’ 1-0 game five loss. In their defense… Cliff Lee really should have held that 4-0 lead in game two.

Aug. 25, 2013

Phillies: 59-71, 3rd place
Cardinals: 76-54, 2nd place

Who needs the playoffs when you have a top prospect trying out a new position?! The Phillies didn’t get the postseason stadium regalia out of the storage closet for Maikel Franco’s first career start at first base in the minors, and as we look back at this mundane time in local baseball history, we can only ask: Why the hell not? 

Shane Victorino was gone, Hunter Pence was gone, Joe Blanton was gone. Clearly the glory years were circling the drain. Why not go all out for 30 to 40 people sweating through their best Utley jerseys in late August and give them some playoff-level Saturday night baseball intensity for a team well under .500? Besides, it’s not often a game goes on for over seven hours, which the Phillies and Diamondbacks had done on Saturday night, the longest game in either team’s history and the catalyst for the Phillies to use four different left fielders, listed here in order of obscurity: Dominic Brown, John Mayberry, Jr., Darin Ruf, and John McDonald.

On Sunday, though, everyone awoke from their marathon non-playoff loss — yeah, the Phillies overcame a 7-1 deficit only to lose a seven-hour game anyway — to watch Roy Halladay return to form, or at least return from shoulder surgery in May, giving up two runs in six innings. Four months later, he’d retire from baseball.

Aug. 25, 2014

Phillies: 59-72, 5th place
Cardinals: 71-59, 2nd place

The Phillies were in last place. A.J. Burnett’s ERA was 6.41. And this was the Nationals’ division now; a team that had for so long played the bullied victim of the East but now wanted to be taken seriously as a contender, but also still wanted to be viewed as the league’s sad little casualty. 

The Phillies weren’t focused on the postseason, or how they were being perceived. They had more important things to concern themselves with, like Burnett’s fastball velocity, and how its slight uptick had resulted in the Phillies’ first win in his last eight starts. And more importantly, they were getting ready for a parade down Broad Street. The Taney Dragons had achieved more in the Little League World Series than the Phillies in 2013 and would be honored as such. 

The Cardinals had just left Philadelphia after a series that they had lost so hard, they had needed to call up a new pitcher to fortify their bullpen. The Phillies were looking to make a call-up, too, with Maikel Franco’s hot, hot bat almost requiring them to. That, along with Burnett’s fastball on the mend and the Dragons reminding everyone what baseball is supposed to look like, things were on the upswing in South Philly. They had to be! They had to be.

Aug. 25, 2015

Phillies: 50-76, 5th place
Cardinals: 80-45, 1st place

The Phillies had sunk to the bottom and the Cardinals had risen to the top. Some might call it the natural ebb and flow of the game; some seasons you have it, and some you don’t. But others would say that this was unacceptable, and to please fix it. 

On Aug. 25, the Phillies were eager to fix one thing — Mets reliever Hansel Robles. Robles quick-pitched Darin Ruf in the seventh inning after the Mets had stolen the lead and everyone was at their most disgusted with themselves. If Robles’ goal had been to not get screamed at by bench coach Larry Bowa, he went about things the exact wrong way. Jeff Francoeur, a man who was once tricked into believing one of his teammates was deaf for most of a baseball season, felt Robles’ move was “chicken shit.” Even Mets catcher Travis d’Arnaud agreed Robles should have waited until Ruf’s head was up to deliver his first pitch.

It was vindication of sorts that everyone agreed Robles was wrong for the move, but it was only Bowa who was ejected, and the Phillies remained in last place until the end of the regular season. But by the last pitch of the World Series, neither the Phillies, nor the 100-win Cardinals, nor the NL pennant-winning Mets were champions. So, who really had a “bad” season?

Whatever. It’s almost time for the Eagles, anyway, we all thought. Surely Chip Kelly could deliver the success story the Phillies could not. 

Aug. 25, 2016

Phillies: 59-68, 4th place
Cardinals: 67-59, 2nd place

In what became the saddest trade in MLB history, the Phillies traded another piece of their former core, Carlos Ruiz, to the Dodgers. Coming back were prospects Tommy Bergjans and Joey Curletta, as well as veteran catcher A.J. Ellis, who reportedly wept with his close friend and battery mate Clayton Kershaw at the news. 

The Cardinals didn’t even make the playoffs. You could have guessed their fate by the game they played against the Mets on Aug. 25. Not only did they let the Mets take two out of three and put a dent in their wild card hopes, but they committed two errors and Adaim Wainwright remained winless in the month of August. Even the umpires were in on it — Wainwright had tried to tag a runner out at third at one point and, according to video replay, successfully done so by tagging the runner on the cleat. But the umps were looking at a different video, it turns out, and ruled the runner safe. 

Cardinals fans contained themselves from throwing trash on the field–a Busch Stadium tradition–but the message was clear: No favors this year. No team of destiny. Just another boring, un-magical, playoff-less team. The same as the Phillies, really. Exactly the same.

Aug. 25, 2017

Phillies: 47-80, 5th place
Cardinals: 64-64, 3rd place

Pete Mackanin called the 2017 Phillies season a tryout “for 25 good men.” Which is a great way to tell everybody that this baseball isn’t going to be the most watchable baseball they’ve ever seen. And yet, come August, everybody was watching the Phillies. Or at least, one of them. 

His name was Rhys Hoskins. On August 25, 2017, he was not the devastatingly injured Phillies first baseman and team captain. He was just a kid they brought up because he’d homered too much in Lehigh Valley to be ignored. By this time, he was right in the middle of what we would come to know as a Rhys Hoskins’ Home Run Spasm: Eight in nine games, to be exact. Hoskins was now a cornerstone of the Phillies’ future, someone upon whom would be heaped expectations he could not possibly meet. That being said, it was nice to be in last place, with something, anything, indicating the Phillies’ trajectory was other than “further downward.”

And what were the Cardinals doing? Playing boring, meaningless, .500 ball? Trying to replace Mike Leake in their rotation? Hoping Michael Wacha was the future? Around this time, one MLB executive referred to the Cardinals as “a signature franchise in our sport,” but it’s impossible to see how they came to this conclusion. Unless baseball’s signature is “being painfully mediocre.”

Since then, a rise

There were more years, sure. The Phillies inched closer to legitimacy — only a few managers away from it — and the Cardinals drifted closer to the abyss.

In 2019, the Phillies finished in a solid third, only four wins separating them from St. Louis. In 2020, they’d only played two dozen games by Aug. 25. In 2021, the two teams were basically the same, record-wise. 

Last year, well. It’s fair to say that no matter what unfolded during the regular season, the Phillies had the Cardinals’ number when it counted.

And this year, this weekend, the NL pennant-defending Phillies play the last-place Cardinals. It’s an indication of how things change, how baseball evolves, and most importantly, baseball’s greatest lesson: What goes around comes around. 

Except for Raul Ibanez’s deep fly ball in game five of the 2011 NLDS. We all still kind of wish that had gone a little further.

Justin Klugh has been a Phillies fan since Mariano Duncan's Mother's Day grand slam. He is a columnist and features writer for Baseball Prospectus, and has written for The Inquirer, Baltimore Magazine,...