Inside the Phillies: Will the home opener start a new sellout streak?

ATLANTA - After seven weeks of spring training and three games in Atlanta, the Phillies finally are going home.

Oh, sure, they were home last weekend for their "On Deck" series with the Toronto Blue Jays, but those games didn't count. Since when does a team play its first home games of a season against an interleague opponent?

Oops. Almost forgot that the Phillies' bitter interleague rivalry with the Kansas City Royals will be renewed at Citizens Bank Park on Friday afternoon with Kyle Kendrick going against Wade Davis. A sellout crowd is expected because sellout crowds have always been expected on opening day ever since the ballpark opened in 2004.

Two losses to the Atlanta Braves here at Turner Field created plenty of anxiety, especially when Roy Halladay followed his shaky spring training with a wobbly first start in a lopsided loss and the offense left runners on base at a maddening pace.

Some semblance of order was restored by Clifton Phifer Lee in the third game Thursday night. Lee didn't just pitch like an ace against the Braves, he pitched like a Cy Young Award candidate, allowing just two hits and two baserunners in eight innings before closer Jonathan Papelbon pitched a perfect ninth to seal a 2-0 win.

Manager Charlie Manuel has been around long enough to know that going home with at least one win in your pocket soothes the mood of the masses at the home opener.


Who has more fans, the Eagles or the Phillies?

"That's without a doubt," Manuel said. "Yes, without a doubt that helps. We've got hope now."

Before we soil the idea of the Phillies' opening the season against an American League team from a different time zone they have very little history with, it should be noted that it is pretty cool that George Brett and Mike Schmidt, the two greatest third basemen in baseball history, will jointly throw out the first pitch.

The two did play against each other in a memorable World Series 33 years ago, and it was a painful experience in so many different ways for Brett and the Royals.

That little bit of history, however, does not make a home opener between the Phillies and Royals any less ridiculous.

"That's a first for us," Manuel said. "That will be a little different. I'm not against it. It doesn't bother me that much. I used to like interleague play when it first came out, but now I'd like to see a true World Series."

It's fair to wonder whether the ballpark would be filled to the brim if this series were being played in early May rather than on opening day. It's also fair to wonder whether the overflowing crowds will continue at Citizens Bank Park this season.

It's easy to forget that the Phillies' season-opening sellouts were not always followed by huge crowds. After the initial new-ballpark attraction in 2004, the crowds quickly dwindled over the next few years. In 2005, 2006, and 2007 it wasn't uncommon for the attendance to start with a two or be in the low 30,000 range.

You have to go back to 2007 to find the last time the Phillies had a game with an attendance figure below 30,000. For some perspective, the Braves drew 18,295 Thursday night to Turner Field. Sure, it was damp and cold and dreary, but the Phillies have packed them in at the Bank plenty of times on similarly miserable nights.

The Phillies, for obvious reasons, do not want to return to the age when sellouts were not routine. They have the second-highest payroll in the National League and the third-highest in baseball. The more often the turnstiles click, the easier it is to meet that payroll.

With the team's sellout streak ending at 257 games last August, it will be fascinating to see whether Citizens Bank Park can maintain its momentum after last season's disappointment and the shroud of concern that has been hung around the 2013 team.

The best way to keep the hoopla going, of course, is to keep winning.

The Phillies have six chances to do that over the next six days. A good start at home would be a good place to start if they want to keep the ballpark parties going.


Contact Bob Brookover at Follow on Twitter @brookob.