WASHINGTON - In many ways, the fourth time for the Phillies has been the most complicated. The ending looked familiar enough last night, with plastic sheeting covering their lockers and alcohol being wasted wantonly, but this National League East title was never entirely predictable; well, not until they set September ablaze.

There are only a handful of franchises in the history of the sport that have won their division four straight times. And if the Phillies aren't anywhere near the 14 consecutive titles won by the Atlanta Braves - "an insane number," said Ruben Amaro Jr., the Phillies' general manager - they are still in the game's most elite company. Almost no one survives the injuries and the ennui and the relentlessness of the thing for this long.

If this isn't the biggest prize in the sport - and it most certainly isn't - the division remains the hardest to win. This is the flag that is taken with 6 months of perspiration, not with October serendipity - and that is true even if a lot of people these days see it as only a box to be ticked off on the ultimate baseball journey. Division title, check.

"I guess there's an expectation now for the fans that it's kind of World Series or bust," Amaro said. "I think people are starting to think that that's the way we think, too. That's not necessarily the truth. We obviously have one goal in mind and that's to be champions - but we don't necessarily view ourselves as failures if we don't get there. It'll be disappointing if we don't, but you can't view that as a failure.

"I think the people in the front office and the people who are playing the games, I think there's a sense of pride when it gets done. But I like the fact that, generally speaking, this group as a whole is not really very satisfied with just being a division champ or just being in the playoffs or just having that limited amount of success.

"I think it actually started here in Washington when we got knocked out in 2006," Amaro said, recalling a long, miserable, rain-delayed night that essentially eliminated the Phillies from their first division challenge under manager Charlie Manuel. They haven't been eliminated since.

Each year was certainly different. But in 2010, the road from Cliff Lee to Champagne was rarely straight. It might even have included Lee's return to the Phillies after his controversial off-season trade to the Seattle Mariners. Last night, Amaro acknowledged as much - that he really did contemplate an about-face for the ages.

He ended up acquiring pitcher Roy Oswalt from the Houston Astros in late July, adding a third big punch to the team's starting rotation, setting up the Phillies with the best on-paper staff they have ever brought into the postseason. But he admitted to assembling a just-in-case list of pitchers who might be available, and assembling it early, and including Lee's name on it prominently.

"We knew that there would be somebody," Amaro said. "Pitchers become available. People aren't afraid to trade top-of-the-rotation guys - it's happened a lot more lately. It almost never happened in the past. We were hopeful we wouldn't have to use that bullet, but when Jamie [Moyer] got hurt, that put us in the position to go do something.

"Did we have the list in March? No, not in March - but shortly thereafter, we did. The first month of the season, you're kind of assessing what you've got. When that month goes, then you start looking at what pitchers might possibly be available. And we talked about Cliff Lee internally."

Really?

"Oh, yeah - why wouldn't we?" Amaro said.

It would be an interesting task, for one thing, explaining why it made sense to get rid of him because of his uncertain contract status in the winter but to acquire him and that same uncertain contract status in the summer. It would have been a public- relations hurdle, if nothing else.

"But that doesn't mean anything to us," Amaro said. "What's more important is doing what we think is right . . . There was no reason for us not to look into getting him back. I had plenty of discussions with [Seattle general manager] Jack Zduriencik. I could have made the deal. We would have lost some very, very, very good players - players that I wasn't willing to part with."

Instead, they got Oswalt and never looked back. Still and all, this was a meandering kind of team for a very long time, largely because of injuries. The person who claims to have seen 94 wins with five games still to play is lying. Amaro didn't.

"In the middle of the season, I had my doubts about winning this many games," he said. "We were playing a little over .500 ball. I don't try to look too far ahead, but I was surprised we even got to 90 wins from where we were in midseason. I did believe, though, that once we got our guys back and healthy, we had a better chance of getting on a roll."

And now, here they all were again: lockers covered, commemorative hats and T-shirts drenched, talking about not being satisfied, saying that now isn't the time to dwell on what an accomplishment this is.

They all said it, reading from invisible scripts, reciting from memory, the rote of champions, again.

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