Joe Girardi thinks this opening day is going to be a bit different than most and he’s right. Last year, of course, was the mother of all unusual opening days – and seasons, for that matter.

No fans, except for the Phandemic Krew stationed just outside the center-field gate at Citizens Bank Park. The ballpark noise was as artificial as the turf at Veterans Stadium that used to destroy the knees and backs of elite athletes.

Seats occupied by cardboard cutouts looked kind of cool and some of them even had terrific stories behind them. FanGraphs and BaseballReference agree, however, that real fans have a superior WAR when compared to their cardboard replacements.

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“I’ve been through a number of opening days and they’re always exciting and there are always butterflies and you really look forward to it,” Girardi said Wednesday on the eve of his second opening day as Phillies manager. “I feel like this one is different. You know your first one is different as a player and your first one as a manager, but I feel like this one is different because we didn’t have fans last year. It just has a completely different feeling and I’m really, really looking forward to it.”

First pitch Thursday against the Atlanta Braves is scheduled for 3:05 p.m. and a crowd of 8,800 will be on hand. Like most opening days, the ballpark will be filled to its limit. Unlike most, it will not be filled to its capacity because the city limit right now is 20% at least through April, a sign that the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down the game for four months last season still lingers.

“I think when you see people come through the turnstiles and into the seats tomorrow, it’s just going to feel like we’re getting our lives back somewhat,” Girardi said. “To see fans in spring training was really, really nice. Not to have pumped-in crowd noise and all that, it felt like we were alive again. It just felt like it was baseball and I can’t wait until tomorrow.”

Another difference Girardi and the Phillies would like to see by the end of this season is the team at the top of the National League East standings. The Braves, with a fierce lineup led by Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuna Jr., have won the division three straight years and deserve to be considered the favorite again.

“They’re a really good team and we know that,” Girardi said. “We have to prove that we do matchup against them and the rest of the division on a daily basis. I like our club. I think there is a lot of talent on this club. But you can talk about talent and you can talk about what guys are able to do, but the great thing is you have to prove it on the field and I think our guys are looking forward to that challenge.”

At least when they’ve gone head to head against the Braves, the Phillies have held their own the last two seasons. They were 10-9 against them two seasons ago and 5-5 last season. The Phillies, in fact, were 21-19 against their division last season, but their 3-7 record against the Miami Marlins cost them a chance to get into an expanded eight-team playoff field.

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This year, the playoff format has returned to five teams from each league and the NL East is touted as the deepest of the league’s three divisions. The NL West, with the Dodgers and Padres expected to be among the best teams in the game, is likely to get at least one of the wild cards, which would leave just one spot for the eight teams that do not win the NL East and Central.

While the Braves deserve to be the division favorite, they are not unbeatable and they might even be a little weaker than a year ago.

“They are a little bit different than last year …,” Girardi said. “They added Charlie Morton into the rotation. Some of their bullpen pieces are gone. Ozzie Albies, we did not see last year and he’s going to be in their lineup every day. For the most part they are pretty similar to what we saw, but there are some different pieces that they have that we didn’t see last year.”

The Phillies’ rotation, with a 4.08 ERA, ranked 10th a year ago compared to a 5.51 ERA for an injury-depleted Atlanta rotation. Morton improves the Braves’ rotation, but the top of the Phillies’ rotation with Aaron Nola and Zack Wheeler is still better than the top duo of Max Fried and Morton. The entire division will be in trouble, however, if Ian Anderson duplicates what he did late last season and into the postseason by going 5-2 with a 1.59 ERA while compiling 65 strikeouts in 51 innings.

The Braves’ offense remains lethal with Freeman, Acuna Jr. , Marcell Ozuna, Albies and Dansby Swanson, but every NL team will be a little less dangerous this season just because pitchers are hitting again. The Phillies’ offense should also remain one of the best in the league.

Atlanta compensated for its poor rotation performance a year ago by having the second best bullpen in the National League. Three key contributors to the bullpen are gone. Closer Mark Melancon signed as a free agent with San Diego and Darren O’Day signed with the New York Yankees, while Shane Greene inexplicably remains a free agent despite posting a 2.39 ERA in 93 regular-season games and a 2.08 ERA in eight postseason appearances for the Braves over the last two seasons.

The Phillies, of course, have a new-look bullpen, although we learned Wednesday that Hector Neris will still be the closer to start the season. We won’t know for a while if the relief corps is improved enough to allow the Phillies to hang with the Braves for 162 games, but Girardi is definitely right about how wonderful it will be to have fans back in the stands on opening day.

Welcome back, folks. You were greatly missed.