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Celebration yields to frustration for Philly

Celebration to frustration in Philly

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PHILADELPHIA -- The tipoff came when somebody pulled the ladder out from under manager Charlie Manuel 40 minutes before the first pitch.

That was just the beginning, and maybe a bad omen, of a frustrating night for the Phillies skipper, who then watched Atlanta's Derek Lowe baffle his hitters en route to an easy 4-1 victory that ruined the long-awaited Opening Night celebration.

And left Charlie in a foul mood, grousing about the distractions all the pomp and circumstance create.

"I complain about that a lot," Manuel said. "You have to stay focused anytime you get away from the real reason that we're here. I don't know how much it hurt. I can tell you it did, but I don't know. I can tell you I don't like it."

Manuel had just helped raise the bright red 2008 World Series championship flag high above center field during the long, elaborate ceremonies Sunday night at Citizens Bank Park.

The sellout crowd of 44,532 was in an euphoric state, welcoming back its heroes with memories of last October's triumph over Tampa Bay, only the second World Series title in the history of the franchise.

But when Manuel walked toward the area where a tall ladder was that his players had used to step down from the outfield stands for their grand entrance moments before, it was gone. No ladder. He had to find another way back to the field.

The Braves and Lowe were content to calmly watch marching bands, choirs, Miss America, an astronaut, video presentations -- you name it. Then, Lowe, a free agent signed by the recast Braves during the offseason, put on a show that dwarfed everything the Phillies staged.

The 35-year-old right-hander, who pitched the past four years for the Los Angeles Dodgers, was magnificent. During his 97-pitch, eight-inning stint, he retired the Phillies in order in all but the third and sixth innings. He gave up 13 ground-ball outs and walked none. A ground-rule double by Carlos Ruiz and a harmless two-out single by Jimmy Rollins after he'd retired 10 in a row deprived him of perfection.

The Braves used a two-run homer by Brian McCann in the first inning and homers by Jeff Francoeur and rookie Jordan Schafer in the second for all the runs they needed off starter Brett Myers, who was heavily booed by the fans.

The Phillies never threatened until they scored their only run in the ninth inning off reliever Mike Gonzalez.

Lowe, 0-3 with an 8.44 ERA in his previous three Opening Day starts, lost to the Phillies in the first game of last year's National League Championship Series and received a no-decision in his second start.

As Spring Training ended, Manuel expressed concern about the lack of at-bats for some of his regulars, saying they hadn't gotten their timing down.

"Tonight, I couldn't tell whether Lowe was that good or we just didn't have good timing," Manuel said. "It might have been a little bit of both. You have to give him credit. He threw strikes and pitched a good game."

During the offseason, most of the free-agent attention was on CC Sabathia, who eventually signed with the Yankees. A. J. Burnett, also obtained by the Yankees, was also in demand and wooed by the Braves.

Lowe didn't agree to his four-year, $60 million deal with Atlanta until Jan. 15. At the time, I thought it might have been the best, if not most reasonable, signing of the winter. He's recorded at least 12 wins for seven consecutive seasons, and you can count on 200 or more innings from him every year.

"He can't pitch any better than he did tonight," gushed Atlanta manager Bobby Cox. "He did it all spring; he was fabulous and was fabulous last year with the Dodgers."

Lowe said making his first start with a new team and the fact the game was on national TV (ESPN2) created "all sorts of emotions. I was really excited. The early innings were important, and I think I did a good job of settling down as early as I possibly could.

"It was a fun game to be part of, but it's over with. Now, I can look forward to a nice rainy day in Philly tomorrow. Yes, I enjoyed the moment. If you had told me this was going to happen, I wouldn't even have showed up. It was a game where a lot of things went right -- a good way to get the career started with a new team."

The Phillies, of course, sent the Dodgers home for the winter last October and went on to win the World Series.

"I don't believe in five-month revenge because they won the World Series," Lowe said, laughing. "The last time I pitched here, we lost."

Lowe agreed the distractions Manuel spoke of are difficult to handle.

"Once they'll settle down in the next two days, [the Phillies will] be able to get back to baseball," Lowe said. "I don't think the average person understands the hoopla and how hard it is to focus. You're riding a high, but in our sport we're routine-oriented. A lot of guys in this situation are knocked out of their routine -- they have to be on the field a lot earlier, there are ceremonies, you have to enter from the stands.

"Yes, it's exciting, but a lot of guys are structured, and small things can get you off kilter."

Yet to Manuel, despite the ladder being pulled out from under him and all the annoying distractions, he says that shouldn't be an excuse for a jarring setback.

"I can tell you I don't like it, but that's all part of the game," Manuel said. "It's what we have to do, and it's good for the fans. And if you win, it's OK. But I long for us to go out there and be focused on what we're supposed to do."

And make sure nobody pulls the ladder out from under him.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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