Opening Day For The Rest Of Us: NL

Speaking of the Mets, the Atlanta Braves' incredible run of 14 straight division titles ended last season with New York's takeover of the NL East. While the Braves think they have what it takes to return to the top, the Phillies believe they're ready to become the new team to beat in the NL East.

The new underdogs will face an optimistic Phillies club Monday in the teams' season opener.

After finishing third in the East last season - six games behind Philadelphia and 18 behind the New York - the Braves found themselves under .500 for the first time since 1990 - one season before their run of division championships began.

The Braves ranked second in the league with 849 runs and first with 222 homers in 2006 with a potent middle of the order in Chipper Jones, Andruw Jones, Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann. They lost Adam LaRoche, however, who hit 32 homers and drove in 90 runs, and last season's leadoff hitter, Marcus Giles.

Veteran righty John Smoltz, who turns 40 in May, will take the hill for Atlanta. He went 16-9 with a 3.49 ERA last season, leading the team in wins and (232) innings pitched.

The Phillies, meanwhile, haven't reached the playoffs since 1993, but have stayed in contention for the wild card until the final weekend of the last two seasons. They led the NL with 865 runs last season and ranked third with 216 home runs, so the goal is to duplicate that performance this year behind a lineup led by 58-homer-hitting Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and hard-hitting second baseman Chase Utley.

Philly upgraded its pitching to complement its powerful lineup, adding Freddy Garcia and Adam Eaton to a rotation that includes Brett Myers, Cole Hamels and veteran lefty Jamie Moyer, a late-season acquisition from Seattle.

Myers, 12-7 with a 3.91 ERA last season, will get the start for Philadelphia in his first opening-day start. He's 4-5 with a 4.14 ERA in 16 starts against Atlanta and went 1-1 with a 3.55 ERA in five outings against them last season.


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