ATLANTA (AP)—The Atlanta Braves think they have the personnel to challenge for the NL East title again. They’re going to get an early chance to prove it, too.
The New York Mets, the defending division champs, and the Braves each won three road games to open the season and begin a weekend series Friday night in Atlanta.
The Mets won three straight against the World Series champion Cardinals in St. Louis, and the Braves completed a three-game sweep at Philadelphia with an 8-4 win Thursday.
The highlight of the series comes Saturday afternoon. Former longtime Braves teammates John Smoltz and Tom Glavine be the opposing pitchers for only the second time since Glavine left Atlanta to pitch for the Mets in 2003.
The Mets finished 18 games ahead of Atlanta last season, ending the Braves’ streak of 14 straight division championships.
New York’s runaway division win last season showed Atlanta’s players the importance of a strong start this year.
“You’re going to play a lot of games against them,” Braves outfielder Andruw Jones said. “You want to win the most games as you can against them right away so when you struggle later, it’s not that big of a deal.
“They’ve got a good team. We’ve got a good team, too. It’s going to be the one that plays better. We will see these first three games how it will turn out.”
The Braves used timely hitting to beat the Phillies in two extra-inning games before winning more easily Thursday. Catcher Brian McCann, an All-Star in 2006, hit home runs in the first two games and added a two-run single Thursday.
Now the challenge is to continue the momentum against the Mets, who outscored St. Louis 20-2 in a three-game sweep.
“It’s a whole new year,” said Tim Hudson, who was impressive in Wednesday’s win. “You aren’t going to win or lose your season in the first couple series of the year. But at the same time, you do want to get off on the right step.”
Hampton is expected to return in early May.
Right-hander Kyle Davies was recalled from Triple-A Richmond on Wednesday and will start for Atlanta on Sunday. Davies replaced Lance Cormier, who won the job with a strong spring but has a strained right triceps and was placed on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 31.
Cormier will be eligible to pitch again on April 15. Manager Bobby Cox soon could face difficult decisions in the bottom two spots of the rotation.
“Hampton rebounded better than we anticipated,” Cox said. “We’re going to be in good shape. We’ve got a lot of depth in the starting rotation.”
That depth should allow Cox to avoid rushing Hampton, who missed last season with reconstructive elbow surgery.
The Braves focused on rebuilding their bullpen in the offseason, but that left room for concern they gave away too much offense. The team didn’t re-sign second baseman Marcus Giles and traded first baseman Adam LaRoche to Pittsburgh for reliever Mike Gonzalez.