Fans occasionally asked manager Charlie Manuel this winter what happened to the Phillies last year.

Philadelphia won a franchise-record 102 games but then lost three games to two to the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series. The Cardinals went on to win the World Series.

"They ask me what happened, and I say, 'Did you follow the Green Bay Packers?' " Manuel said during the Phillies' winter tour stop in Lakewood last month.

The Packers, like the Phillies, excelled in the regular season but flopped in the playoffs. The Super Bowl champion New York Giants beat Green Bay in the divisional round.

More and more these days, winning championships in any sport is about getting hot at the right time.

The Phillies lost to the hot team last year and in 2010, when they fell to the San Francisco Giants in the NL Championship Series. The Phillies were the hot team in 2008 when they won the World Series.

"I don't think we were the best team in baseball in 2008, but we played the best in the postseason," said general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., who was also at the winter tour stop in Lakewood. "I think we were the best team in baseball in 2010 and 2011. It just didn't happen for us."

The Phillies' pitchers and catchers reported to spring training in Clearwater, Fla., on Saturday to begin a grind that Philadelphia hopes ends with another playoff appearance in October.

But is there any way to ensure now that the Phillies will be the hot team come the fall? Or is it just luck?

Fans who crave certainity may not like the answer.

"It's about karma," Amaro said. "When you get yourself into position to be a contender and be in the playoffs, you give yourself a chance to win. It's about playing your best baseball at the right time and making your breaks when you have the opportunity."

Manuel admitted he thought a lot about the Cardinals series for a week after it ended. Game 5 kept the Citizens Bank Park fans on the edges of their seats for nine innings. The Cardinals won 1-0 as pitcher Chris Carpenter threw a complete game and allowed just three hits.

The Cardinals didn't even win a division. Their 90 wins earned them the NL wild card.

"They got it going and they carried it all the way through," Manuel said. "We're good enough to win a World Series, and we're not happy when we go home like that. There's nothing we can do about it except come back this year and make sure we get a chance to go to the World Series and win some more."

The Phillies aren't alone with this fate. Manuel noted the New York Yankees lost in the first round last year after winning 97 games. The Atlanta Braves won 14 division titles from 1991-2005 but only one World Series.

"It's hard to explain," Manuel said, "but a lot of luck comes into play."

But teams that get hot do share some common elements.

They have strong bullpens, starting pitchers who get strikeouts, and power hitters.

The Phillies have that type of talent with new closer Jonathan Papelbon (31 saves last season), starters Roy Halladay (19-6, 2.35 ERA), Cliff Lee (17-8, 2.40 ERA) and Cole Hamels (14-9, 2.99 ERA) and a lineup that will feature outfielder Hunter Pence (.314 average, 22 home runs) for a full season.

The Phillies also bolstered their bench in the offseason with the acquisitions of Jim Thome, Ty Wigginton and Laynce Nix in hopes that one of those players can come off the bench and get a big hit.

"You put the best players out there," Amaro said. "I'll take my chances with those guys."

But in the end, despite all the offseason planning and the work that begins in spring training, winning a World Series is about taking a chance that come October the team is peaking at the right time.

Contact Michael McGarry:

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