PHILADELPHIA -- It had been only five years, but it had been long enough that October baseball in Philadelphia had started to feel like a birthright.
It had to happen.
Except in 2012, it did not. The Phillies, who had won five consecutive National League East championships, two NL pennants and one World Series from 2007-11, missed the postseason for the first time since '06. A mix of injuries and subpar performances buried them in the standings through July.
They never completely recovered, finishing 81-81, their first season without a winning record since 2002.
The Phils stood just 45-57 (.441) and last in the NL East on July 29 after the Braves swept them in a three-game series in Atlanta. They had the fifth-worst record in the league at the time.
So the next day, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. traded Hunter Pence and Shane Victorino to the Giants and Dodgers, respectively.
Joe Blanton followed Victorino to Los Angeles a short time later.
But an interesting thing happened the final two months of the season. Philadelphia started winning again.
The Phillies finished 36-24 (.600), which was the fifth-best record in the NL after the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Phils starters ranked second in the league with a 3.39 ERA from July 31 through the end of the regular season after ranking ninth with a 4.07 ERA to that point. Philadelphia's relievers ranked fourth in the league with a 2.81 ERA in that same timeframe after ranking 13th with a 4.50 ERA.
The Phillies' offense averaged 4.27 runs per game the rest of the way, which ranked eighth. It was a minor improvement from the first half, when they played without Ryan Howard and Chase Utley.
Maybe those final two months are a sign things will be better in 2013.
But before we look ahead, let's take a look back at the top five storylines from 2012:
5. No Chase, no Ryan, no runs
The Phils entered Spring Training hoping Howard might miss a month or two of the season following left Achilles surgery. But after he suffered complications from the surgery in February, Howard did not play his first game until July 6.
Losing the Big Piece in the middle of the lineup for more than three months is tough enough, but then Utley missed nearly three months because of chronically injured knees. Utley did not play his first game until June 27.
Not too many teams win without the No. 3 and 4 hitters in their lineup the first three months of the season. The Phillies were no different.
Manager Charlie Manuel tried Jimmy Rollins, Pence, Victorino and even Placido Polanco in the No. 3 spot before Utley came back. He tried Pence, Carlos Ruiz, Jim Thome, Ty Wigginton and even Hector Luna in the cleanup spot before Howard came back. Once Utley and Howard returned, the Phils righted themselves a bit offensively, but it was too late.
4. Rotation problems
The Phillies figured they could survive a few months without Howard and Utley because they still had one of the best rotations in baseball.
Except the rotation had problems of its own.
Roy Halladay had one of the worst seasons of his career because of injury problems. Cliff Lee spent time on the disabled list early in the season, and when he returned, he had some of the worst luck imaginable. Vance Worley finished the season on the disabled list with an elbow injury.
The Phils' 2011 rotation can be considered one of the greatest in baseball history, but the '12 version was a far cry from that, despite a solid season from Cole Hamels.
3. Danger! Danger! It's the eighth inning
The Phillies finished seven games behind the St. Louis Cardinals for the second NL Wild Card.
Maybe they would not have had to play nearly flawless baseball down the stretch if they had not struggled so terribly in the eighth inning. Phils relief pitchers had a 4.91 ERA in the eighth inning in 2012, which was the third-worst mark in baseball. Only the Astros and Brewers were worse.
Philadelphia also blew 13 leads in the eighth inning, which was tied with Milwaukee for the most in baseball.
If the Phillies would've held just seven of those 13 leads, they would've tied the Cardinals.
2. Reality sets in
Hire the preseason prognosticator who had the Phils making two big trades before the July 31 Trade Deadline, and both of them involved trading away everyday All-Star players for players that could help in the future.
But after the Phillies' poor start, they shipped Pence to the Giants and Victorino to the Dodgers.
The Phillies acquired Tommy Joseph, Nate Schierholtz and Seth Rosin from the Giants. Joseph could be Ruiz's heir behind the plate. They got Josh Lindblom, Ethan Martin and Stefan Jarrin from the Dodgers. The Phils are high on Martin, who could be in the rotation in the future. Philadelphia shipped Lindblom to Texas as part of the Michael Young trade.
Nobody -- absolutely nobody -- would have predicted the Phillies would have traded two-thirds of their starting outfield before the Trade Deadline, but that's what the poor start did to them.
1. Strong finish means a strong start?
The Phillies are hoping the good things they watched the final two months of the season means they still have enough talent to take another run at a World Series championship.
The lineup improved with Howard and Utley back, although the Phils are not the juggernaut they were a few years ago. The stable of young relievers started to find their groove, turning a team weakness into a strength by the end of the season. The rotation improved with Hamels, Lee and Kyle Kendrick pitching himself into a spot in the rotation. (Now they just need Halladay to get healthy and return to form.)
Can everybody pick up where they left off? That is the question on everybody's minds with Spring Training less than two months away.
Todd Zolecki is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.