NL Least expected

"Expectations are the most dangerous thing in our game."
-- A National League general manager who prefers to remain anonymous.

One team arrived in spring training and found T-shirts hanging in every locker that sent an unmistakable message: "NOW IS THE TIME."

The other team's players arrived in spring training, to the sound of their most recognizable face announcing they were now, officially underdogs. After all, said John Smoltz back then, "you can't lose all the Hall of Famers we lost and be the favorites."

One team is the Philadelphia Phillies. The other is the Atlanta Braves. Back in February, beneath the palm trees, it seemed so clear where their seasons were supposed to lead.

Now it's more than six months later. This week, we found those same two teams playing each other.

One of them is eight games ahead in its division. The other is three games under .500, watching its season die before its eyes.

That wouldn't have been a surprise six months ago -- except for one thing: That team heading for the playoffs is the Braves. And the team slipping down the wrong side of Mount .500 is the Phillies.

The expectation, of course, is that it would have -- or should have -- happened the other way around. But sometimes, it's those expectations themselves that get in the way.

The Phillies had to do something this year they hadn't done since a time when John Kruk was going three months between haircuts -- not just win, but win when they were expected to win.

The Braves, meanwhile, were in a position they hadn't been in since Zane Smith was their Opening Day starter -- trying to win when nobody expected them to win.

The season may not be over yet. But it's safe to say we know now how each of those teams handled those expectations -- or lack thereof.

The Phillies couldn't carry that weight. The Braves have found out what a blast it can be to win when you're not lugging that expectation boulder on your shoulder.

It has been a stunning and remarkable tale. But there's a lesson in how it turned out. And it's proof that all the dopes on this whole front-running planet who still underestimate the achievements of the 1992-2003 Braves just don't get it. The lesson is this:

"It's so hard to win when you're supposed to win," said Smoltz this week. "And it's so easy -- or, I should say, easi-er -- to win when you're not supposed to."

The Braves now have aced both of those tests. They strung together a million division titles in a row when that was the only outcome they were allowed. Now they've done it the other way -- surprising even themselves by roaring from six games under .500 in June to 24 games over .500 a mere 10 weeks later.

"We were just here," Smoltz said, nodding at the picturesque confines of Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park, "right before the All-Star break. We were two games behind [actually three, after they lost Game 1 of a three-game series in July]. And now we're 11½ games up on them [actually 13½, after beating the Phillies twice this week]. That, to me, is pretty amazing.

"We've played 45 games since then. To turn around 13 games [actually 16½]? That's amazing. And you know what? They know it, too. The other teams in this division know it. They could have put us away. They could have buried us. Instead, they gave us a chance. And we took advantage of it."

The Marlins won the World Series. But even they weren't the favorites. It was the Phillies who traded for Eric Milton and Billy Wagner, and were picked to win by everybody except Chief Nok-a-homa.

But all that hoopla also transported them to a place they'd never been before -- a place directly in the middle of the microscope. And if they weren't conscious of that before they showed up this spring, they were sure conscious of it after they checked out those T-shirts.

"Every year, no matter what team you're on, everybody goes into the season thinking they've got a chance," said catcher Mike Lieberthal, now in his 11th season as a Phillie. "But for us, at least since I've been here, this is the first year where we knew that if we didn't win the division, if we didn't get to the playoffs, it would be a total disappointment."

And a total disappointment is exactly what it has been, too. Yeah, they've had injuries. Yeah, their new ballpark psyched out the pitching staff. Yeah, they've spent all season swirling in the gales of Hurricane Bowa. But that doesn't change the definition of this lost season:

Total disappointment.

"We've got nobody to blame but ourselves," said reliever Roberto Hernandez -- a Brave last year, a Phillie this year. "Every team deals with injuries. We can't blame that. Other teams deal with injuries and find a way to get it done. ... We found ways to lose."

A week into the season, the Phillies had played seven games and won one of them. So from that minute on, given everything that was expected of them, they've been a team that allowed themselves no room to breathe. And that's exactly how they've played -- like a team gasping for breath any time the air around them got sticky.

"This is not what we came here to do," said reliever Tim Worrell, one of many guys in that Phillies clubhouse who have won elsewhere but haven't been able to duplicate the formula in Philadelphia. "So we're as frustrated and confused as everyone is -- the fans watching, the front office, everyone. We're all frustrated. We've tried to figure it out. We haven't found the answer."

Now they will have to search for that answer for many weeks and months -- just as soon as they're finished watching someone else celebrate.

They are likely to change managers, highly unlikely to change general managers, virtually certain to change several of their coaches. They will try to figure out what went wrong with a lineup and pitching staff that looked so resplendent on paper.

But maybe most of all, they need to figure out this: Why couldn't this team rise to meet its clearly anointed moment? Why did this group of players treat those expectations as a burden instead of a source of inspiration?

They find that hard to understand themselves.

"I think every player wants those expectations," said Lieberthal.

"That's why I signed here," said Worrell. "To win."

Yet, even with all these veteran players -- men who should have been able to handle the manager's nonstop intensity, men like Worrell and David Bell and Jim Thome who had been through pennant races and playoff games and World Series games -- this was a team that never seemed able to relax amid the pressure and let its talent flow.

"If there's pressure on you, you have to do something to deflect that pressure," Worrell said. "You've got to be out there playing for the moment, for that pitch, for that at-bat. That's where all the experience on this team should have shown up. You can't be thinking, 'I've got to get this guy out or we're not going to go to the playoffs.' You've got to be out there having fun.

"But sometimes," said Worrell, "expectations can hinder that."

If those big games and pivotal moments were supposed to be fun, this team played as if it had that "fun" page torn out of its dictionary.

They're 1-11 against the Marlins, 6-9 against the Braves, 12-28 against all teams in their division not named the Expos. That's how much fun they had playing those games.

People grumble about their unproductive offense. But it's funny how that lack of productivity showed up only in situations that separate winners from number-hangers.

These Phillies are on pace to score 810 runs. That's 50 more than the team that won the last World Series. But how do they explain what happens with runners in scoring position, when their team batting average drops by 11 points and their slugging percentage drops 25 points?

And how do they explain what happens in the late innings of close games, when their slugging plummets by nearly 50 points?

"This club got too caught up in end results," said Worrell. "We got too caught up in wins and losses."

Is that because they play for a manager whose idea of fun is 162-and-0? Is that because they play in one of the most demanding, winner-hungry cities on the continent? Whatever it was, they were never able to create the kind of climate that has allowed that other team in their division to win all those titles, year after year after amazing year, no matter how monstrous the expectations.

"I think we always knew that, to win this division, you had to beat Atlanta, regardless of who they lost," said Hernandez. "Yeah, they lost Sheffield and Maddux and Lopez and Vinny Castilla. ... But they've still got Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones and John Smoltz and Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles. Those guys have been around long enough where they can show guys what it's like to wear an Atlanta Braves uniform and defend the NL East.

"And," Hernandez said, "that No. 6 over there -- he's amazing."

That No. 6, our programs tell us, happens to be the best manager alive -- Mr. Bobby Cox. And he is proving it again.

Only Smoltz remains from the first of his division champs. Only three other guys remain from the last Braves team to win a World Series (Chipper, Andruw and Eddie Perez). But the manager is a constant. And the best general manager in the business -- Mr. John Schuerholz -- is a constant. And they have figured out, over all these years, that if you mix the right players with the right atmosphere, it is possible to win every stinking year.

Across the rest of this division, they ask: Is there really an art to knowing how to win when you're expected to win? The Braves, of course, don't just know it. They have pretty much copyrighted it.

"That," laughed Schuerholz, "is a question that requires a 300-page book to answer. And it's coming out [from an author named Schuerholz] in a couple of years. But yeah, I think there is an art to it.

"I think it's professionalism. And consistency. And an uncompromising attitude in how you construct a roster and who the players are you want on that roster. And there's Bobby's unwavering consistency in how he manages those players. We get him the kind of players he wants to manage. And he manages the type of players we want to acquire."

If there is a phrase that sums up the Braves' "type," Schuerholz describes it as "quiet professionalism." They never whine. They never hot-dog it. And they never, ever panic -- not even when they were six games under .500 more than 70 games into what was supposed to be the season they faded into the National League sunset.

"Panic -- you've never seen that," Schuerholz said. "Nor will you ever see that. Nor will you ever see this team act overconfident or cocky in success."

What Smoltz has seen for years is the sight of the Mets and Phillies and Marlins building teams designed "just to beat us." He has watched those clubs beat the Braves in a dramatic game here, a crazy game there -- and almost found it amusing "how excited people got when they won."

"When we win, we get excited, too," Smoltz said. "But it's more like: We won? OK, it was a big game, but now let's turn the page. Or: We lost? OK, it was a big game, but we'll get 'em tomorrow. When you watched those other teams celebrate one victory, you had to think: If you get too high, it also means you're going to get too low. And we don't do that here."

But Smoltz also admits there is something about this year that's different. After all those years of what-else-is-new rides to the top, this journey feels more like the first time, like '91.

"There's a sound I keep hearing," Smoltz said. "And that sound is: 'No way. No way you guys are 8½, nine games ahead. No way.' We know the Florida Marlins are a great baseball team. The Philadelphia Phillies are a great baseball team. The Mets, I think, are getting close. And we're 8½ up. So that's what keeps going through my head: 'No way.' "

Which means that if this season ends how it appears it's going to end, with that 13th straight division title, this team won't have the standard what-else-is-new reaction to it. Because this one didn't come rolling off the assembly line. It nearly came out of nowhere.

"For 10 years," Smoltz said, "I haven't gotten excited [about finishing first], because it was just one step. Well, I'll tell you right now. If we have the opportunity to celebrate this one, I'll be like I was the first time we won. That's what it means to this group of guys to put ourselves in this position."

That position may look unfamiliar from the inside. But it will look way too familiar from the outside. In Philadelphia, in the rest of the NL East, they have seen it all before. And they're still trying to figure out why the formula always winds up being locked in a vault in downtown Atlanta, Ga.

Question: Now that Ichiro Suzuki has cranked out his 200th hit for the fourth straight season, can you name the two other active players -- one an American League star, the other a National League backup -- who have had back-to-back 200-hit seasons in their careers?

Answer: Derek Jeter and Carlos Baerga.

(Triviologists' note: This list actually could more than double by the end of this season, with Juan Pierre and Michael Young both on pace to reach 200 hits for the second straight season and Albert Pujols on pace for 199.)

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.