Jon Heyman
Monday April 6th, 2009

Only moments after Phillies manager Charlie Manuel raised the 2008 world championship flag in center field, the Atlanta Braves strongly signaled it was a whole different year, silencing the early celebratory cheers with a trio of long home runs within 20 minutes of the season's start, plus eight superb, scoreless innings by new Braves ace Derek Lowe, who allowed only two hits.

The planned all-night celebration here lasted only a few minutes past the first pitch, as it turns out. Good cheer can be ephemeral here, where Santa Claus has good days and bad, and Phillies fans grew quiet, appearing to have taken literally Phillies slugging star Ryan Howard's pregame advice to his team to "turn the page'' and forget about that championship season.

The ring ceremony is scheduled for Wednesday, so more good memories are promised. This was generally not a night for nostalgia, though.

The Braves, who need to write a new chapter themselves after their uncharacteristically brutal 2008 season, ruined the party planners' efforts on Opening Night with a power display that would have flown in any ballpark, not just perhaps baseball's most hitter-friendly yard. Atlanta's diminutive cleanup man Brian McCann sent a changeup from Phillies starter Brett Myers deep into the second deck in right field, starting an Opening Day barrage Myers won't soon forget. Neither will Phillies fans who'd come to toast the past.

"There was a lot of excitement, a lot of anticipation ... but they jumped on us early,'' the Phillies' Shane Victorino said.

"I don't think fans understand how hard it is when you've won a World Series. I imagine every one of their guys got knocked out of their routine. There were a lot of distractions,'' Lowe said.

Within the first half-hour, there would be two more Braves home runs, one from a powerful, young lefthanded hitter Jordan Schafer, who'd never before played in a major league game, as well as Jeff Francoeur, who didn't resemble a major league hitter last year. Schafer surprised even the Braves by winning the center field job over Josh Anderson and Gregor Blanco with a wide array of impressive tools, including the sort of unusual power that enabled him to hit a home run well over the high centerfield wall in the deepest part of Citizens Bank Park -- the very spot that contained even Manny Ramirez in last year's playoffs.

Schafer's long blast came in his very first big-league at-bat, stunning the crowd in the Braves' 4-1 victory (BOX | RECAP). But Francoeur's homer, a bullet over the left-field fence, might have even been an even more welcome sight for the Braves, who followed a soap operatic winter with an especially strong spring. Despite attention-grabbing yet ultimately disappointing pursuits involving Jake Peavy, A.J. Burnett, their great former star John Smoltz and even Hall-of-Fame-bound Ken Griffey Jr., the Braves just might have made more worthwhile, game-changing type moves than anyone in the National League. If they play many games like this one, they will be a team to be reckoned with in a very tough division.

The Braves got two big blows from surprising sources but it was their old star Chipper Jones playing a major role behind the scenes. Francoeur said before the games Jones got the other Braves' attention by telling them, "No one fears the Braves anymore. We're sick of being a laughingstock.''

The rousing speech didn't hurt. But some winter moves helped more.

The best important of the Braves' acquisitions was undoubtedly the $60-million signing of new ace Lowe, a vital pickup to anchor a vast rotation makeover. Lowe's Dodgers were dispatched by the Phillies in last October's playoff derby, and Lowe had a wholly unsatisfying final game as a Dodger, being removed with a lead the Dodgers eventually lost. Critics may question whether Lowe's a true ace; but if he isn't, he certainly played the role nicely in his debut for the organization that used to employ almost nothing but aces in its rotation.

On a beautiful night -- a far cry from the frigid finale here last October -- Lowe baffled the Phillies' star-studded lineup, which grew more impatient against the sinkerball specialist. Patience was at a premium by the seventh inning, when Lowe needed only six pitches to retire the heart of the Phillies' order, which consists of Chase Utley, Howard and Raul Ibanez. After, Howard wondered aloud whether Lowe "had a magnet'' pulling the ball down on a sinker that was part of a two-pitch repertoire that was plenty (the other pitch was the breaking ball as Lowe disdained the changeup in the gem).

Lowe, who was 0-3 with an 8.44 Era in his three previous Opening day starts, had a different explanation. "I told myself just to enjoy it and don't try so hard this time,'' he said. "Just enjoy it because it may never happen again.''

Lowe, basically unhittable, got even better at the end, finhsing the seventh and eighth innings in 14 total pitches. But Braves manager Bobby Cox, wanting to preserve Lowe in his debut, employed closer Mike Gonzalez, who allowed the Phillies' lone run and provided a little bit of phalse hope before striking out Howard and Ibanez, who combined to go 0-for-8 on three strikeouts and five groundouts, as the potential tying run.

The crowd finally showed late life in the ninth. But all in all, this was no way for the Phillies to begin a defense of their title.

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