The Philadelphia Phillies have been through darker periods before. After all, they had a record-setting steak of 16 consecutive losing seasons on their way to becoming the first team in professional sports to lose 10,000 games.
However, the franchise undeniably went on a steady decline after 2011. And Cesar Hernandez and Maikel Franco are the two lone Phillies who truly know how long gone were the days of a heralded team that went to back-to-back World Series in 2008 and 2009.
Hernandez, who made his MLB debut on May 29, 2013, and Franco, who was a September 2014 call-up and one of the youngest position players to debut with the Phillies, are the only members of the current 25-man roster who have been with the team for at least five seasons.
They saw the "Fightin' Phils" go from an MLB-best franchise-record 102 wins in 2011 to the worst record in the major leagues (63-99) in 2015.
"You know ... we tried so hard," Franco said, recalling that 99-loss season. "You prepare, you do all the work, and you see that all that preparation that you put in every single day does not give you the results you want. It's so frustrating. It hurts you. There were even times that, when the game was over, you didn't know what to do; didn't know what to think."
Said Hernandez: "It is no secret that to get to this point we went through a lot of difficulties. Right now we are winning, but we really know how hard it was to lose so much, especially those years that we were practically in last place. Being now so close to the top of the leaderboard is really fulfilling, especially for us."
From 2012 to 2017 the Phillies were 437-545, and their .439 win percentage was the worst in the majors over that span. After going 81-81 in 2012, finishing third in the NL East, they didn't win more than 73 games in any of their next five seasons, finishing fourth or fifth in the division each year.
But under the guidance of first-year manager Gabe Kapler, the 2018 Phillies are again playing meaningful games in August and find themselves surpassing expectations.
"It's all about the way [Kapler] treats us as players, how he speaks to us, how he interacts with us. He has been such a positive influence," Hernandez said. "He always talks to us about our role; always checks up on you and is focused on us getting what we need. He's so caring; always looks for ways to help you to be better, that you don't feel tired, that you feel good and get what you need. That motivates us to continue giving the best of ourselves for the team, but also for him. We know we have a manager who is always there for us."
With Friday's win over the New York Mets, the Phillies improved to 68-54 in Kapler's first season, and are now just three wins shy of matching their win total for 2017. The surprising turnaround has Philadelphia just a half-game behind Atlanta for the NL East lead and at the top of the wild-card race.
"Nobody expected us to be in the position we are today. But when you are around winning people, people who like to work hard, who like to win, that spreads around the clubhouse," Franco said. "[Carlos] Santana went to the World Series. [Jake] Arrieta won the World Series. And what you want is to feel that emotion of going to a postseason, to the World Series, all those things. When you are surrounded by people who give you positive vibes, it's very nice. They have given us that vibe, that push, that joy we feel winning games and really, it's a beautiful thing."
Is this group capable of duplicating that franchise-best run of five straight postseason appearances from 2007 through 2011? Hernandez and Franco believe they have what it takes.
"We have taken the necessary steps to one day be like them. And it's not just about this year, we have a young talented team that I hope will continue at the same pace we have now," Hernandez said. "I know everyone has been very surprised; nobody expected much from us. And now we know how good it feels to win."
Said Franco: "The year the Phillies won the World Series we had Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Carlos Ruiz, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay, Carlos Ruiz, Jimmy Rollins ... and right now ... we feel we are on our way. If I don't get things done, then it's Hernandez or Herrera or Hoskins or Santana, or someone else. We are all in this together.
"This season has been the most beautiful thing that has ever happened to me playing ball, because when you help your team, when you see your team winning, that you are close to first place, it transforms you."