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Phillies' Opening Night loss reflects ominous signs for '09 title defense

It took just the first of more than 2,000 games that await unwrapping this year to know this season is made of an entirely different DNA than that which just passed. When opening night was over, Atlanta right fielder Jeff Francoeur walked out of Citizens Bank Ballpark with teammate Chipper Jones and told him, "Man, that was one of your best speeches ever."

So what's new? The Braves, with their franchise player laying down a new attitude -- "We're sick of being the laughingstock," was what Francouer recalled of Jones' pregame channeling of Knute Rockne -- Atlanta, fresh off 90 losses, beat the Phillies, fresh off their world championship dream season, 4-1. (RECAP | BOX) It's a whole new ball game. New Braves ace Derek Lowe, Atlanta's answer to letting John Smoltz leave, pitched a gem; Jordan Schafer became only the fifth player in 134 years of Braves/Beaneaters baseball to homer in his first at-bat, and Francouer (remember him?), with a swing rebuilt by the hitting coach from another major league team, reintroduced himself by whacking the first pitch he saw for a home run. Such is the beauty of opening night, when dreams are built upon first impressions.

"Everyone talks about the Mets and Phillies, and rightly so," Francoeur said. "We want to get back into that discussion. "We have eight guys in our lineup who could hit 20 home runs. We may not have the 3-4-5 guys the Mets and Phillies do, but 1 through 8, we're as good as any team in our division."

Francoeur, after a miserable 2008 season in which he hit .239 with 11 home runs, sought help from Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo last November. It wasn't quite Charles Barkley using a lifeline to Hank Haney for his pantomine-of-a-heart-attack golf swing, but you get the idea. Francoeur did so on the advice of former teammate Mark DeRosa, as well as Rangers infielder Michael Young. "There are guys like Mark who say they owe their careers to him," Francoeur said.

With a revitalized Francoeur, the energetic play of Schafer (who joined Jermaine Dye, Chuck Tanner and Beaneaters Johnny Bates and JoeHarrington in the first at-bat homer club) and even a little bit of offense from Garret Anderson, Atlanta might actually have a productive outfield. In Lowe, they also might have the pitcher come October that the Mets might be wishing they had instead of re-investing in Oliver Perez.

"When you give up two hits to the Phillies, in this park?" Francoeur said. "That's impressive."

Actually, Lowe did something no pitcher ever did before in the history of Citizens Bank Bandbox: He allowed as few as two baserunners while throwing as many as eight innings. The Phillies scored nothing off him.

The Phillies, too, quickly discovered 2008 is so yesterday, though they proudly celebrated it before the game with pomp and circumstance -- which could very well be the names of their No. 4 and 5 starters before this year is out. Look at this way: The Phillies are built at the moment to give 90 starts to Brett Myers, Joe Blanton and Chan Ho Park. How you regard that kind of pitching depth depends on your view of Myers, whose track record includes stretches of great and awful pitching that add up to something rather ordinary.

Philadelphia saw the bad Myers last night, at least over the first two innings, when three mistakes cost him four runs on three homers -- which meant the end of the ball game because of the way Lowe threw.

"I feel like last year if something like that happened I might have folded," Myers said. "I might have given up an eight-spot instead of a four-spot."

Well, that's progress. But here's the thing about Myers: He is 27, still working on a decent changeup, and since 2006 he has been in out of the bullpen, in and out of the minor leagues, and is 15-21 with a 4.52 ERA.

Other than the pregame ceremonies, the Phillies for one night offered little in the way of expecting the good times of 2008 to keep rolling. Manager Charlie Manuel said both ace Cole Hamels (elbow) and second baseman Chase Utley (offseason hip surgery) require "monitoring," especially in the early season cold weather. Hamels, he said, still is working on getting full arm strength and velocity.

Such stories are typical of the bills that come due for pennant winning teams in their followup seasons. None of the past 14 pennant winners have returned to the World Series. Half of them didn't even make the playoffs and the other half were 3-7 in postseason series.

Of course, no one dares to write off a rugged Phillies team on the basis of one game, other than maybe the few fans who booed Myers and Ibanez. ("That's Philly," Myers said, shrugging.) Indeed, the Phillies have turned slow starts into their own Philly tradition, having begun the previous three seasons 24-22, 26-28 and 24-24. Wake them up when it's June.

But there was something specific about how Philadelphia faded out on Day One that bears watching. Manuel chose to bat left-handers Utley, Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez in succession in the middle of the order, thus handing opposing managers a room-service invitation to clamp down a game with one decent left-handed reliever -- a reliever such as the Braves' Mike Gonzalez. After Utley walked in the ninth to bring the tying run to the plate, Howard whiffed and Ibanez did likewise. Somewhere Pat Burrell was smiling.

"We've played one game, man," Manuel said. "What would you suggest?"

Well, here's an idea, now that $31.5 million already has been spent on a soon-to-be 37-year-old left-handed hitter who has never played in a playoff game: Put Shane Victorino or Jayson Werth between Howard and Ibanez, with the other of the two hitting second.

"We can shuffle guys around more than likely wind up where it's at [now]," Manuel said. "Maybe we can find a right-handed hitter between them that gets hot."

It was only one game, as Victorino pointed out, "so we're not going to just shoot ourselves in the foot."

Right. It was only one game, but, like one of those visual perception tests in which you might see a vase and somebody else might see two faces in profile, the Braves and Phillies could see something totally different from the same game. It was something to believe in, or it was something to discard. What it most definitely was not, was 2008 anymore.

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