,MIAMI -- While there's still just over a third of the season left to play, all eyes will be on Shea Stadium tonight.

The Phillies begin a three-game series with the rival Mets tonight in Flushing.

Although each club will have 60 games to play when it's all over, either the Phillies or the Mets can grab a little momentum as the race for the National League East crown enters the back stretch in the next three days.

The Mets have ace Johan Santana locked and loaded. The Phils are giving the ball to a newcomer to the rivalry, newcomer Joe Blanton.

Acquired in a trade with the Oakland A's Thursday for three minor leaguers, Blanton makes his Phillies debut in tonight's pivotal game against the Mets.

"The first start you get thrown right into the fire, right into the rivalry, with one of the teams we're fighting with to win the division -- that's the best way to go," Blanton said. "You get thrown right in from the get-go and roll with it."

Blanton isn't unfamiliar with meaningful division rivalries. In the majority of his four-plus seasons in Oakland, the A's and Angels were constantly fighting for the top two spots in the American League West.

"We won (the division) a few years in a row before I got there and it's been back and forth for the past few years," Blanton said. "We'd always played games that were decided by two runs or less, it was like 90 percent of the time...

"You try to keep the same mindset, but obviously everything is stepped up a little bit. But as a pitcher, you try to back down a little bit because when you let

your emotions get into it you kind of lose focus with what you're doing.

"And if one pitch gets away, that could be the game."

While most of Blanton's history is in a different league on a different coast, he does have some history with the Mets - he hasn't allowed a run in two career starts, spanning 15 innings.

In his only career outing at Shea Stadium, June 23 of last year, Blanton had a five-hit shutout going after eight innings. But in a scoreless game, he was pinch hit for in the ninth inning of an eventual 1-0 defeat.

"Those games definitely step up your intensity a little bit," Blanton said of pitching in a lively environment like New York.

Blanton (5-12, 4.96) prides himself on durability. He said his biggest goal each year is to eclipse the 200-inning mark.

He'll try to add to his total of 127 with seven or eight more innings tonight.

"I expect him to throw strikes," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said of his new right-hander. "He's capable of pitching a good game... I think he'll do pretty good."

"He's a great pitcher...he's got good stuff," added Phillies third baseman Pedro Feliz, who faced Blanton several times during A's-Giants interleague games. "I think he's going to help our team."

With a solid outing from Blanton, the Phillies can put themselves into position to win their first series against an NL East opponent not named the Braves since June 1.

The Phillies are 18-16 against division foes this year. But if you take away their 8-1 mark against Atlanta, they're just 10-15.

"If you win those series, it should work out in the end," first baseman Ryan Howard said.

After Blanton vs. Santana tonight, Wednesday night's game, televised on ESPN, presents another intriguing matchup. After four starts in the minors, beleaguered, Opening Day starter Brett Myers will try to get back on track.

The Mets are countering with John Maine, who is 4-0 with a 2.36 ERA in eight career starts against the Phillies.

Thursday's series finale pits a pair of lefties against one another: Phillies veteran Jamie Moyer vs. the unpredictable Oliver Perez, who is currently on a hot streak (1.38 ERA in his last four starts).

But before the Phillies can begin to think about Perez, they have to take care of business tonight. And they're confident in their new starting pitcher.

"Out there against him, you know how difficult it is - he hides the ball, moves the ball, changes speeds," said shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who went 0-for-3 against Blanton in a 5-2 loss to Oakland last month.

"It's a good thing that he's fresh blood in this series, a guy they haven't seen (too much) - a lot of times the advantage goes to the pitcher," Rollins continued. "Hopefully we can score runs for him."

Even if the attention on the outside is on Blanton, the main man inside the Phillies dugout will be looking for his bats to wake up, too. After his team's most recent offensive outage, in a 3-2 loss to the Marlins Sunday, Manuel lit into his lineup.

He called the team's situational hitting "absolutely terrible."

While the Phils offense has been in a funk, the Mets have reeled off 11 wins in their last 13 games.

"I'm not a big scoreboard watcher," Phillies second baseman Chase Utley said Sunday, after a Mets win and Phillies loss moved the two teams into a tie. "You can only control what's in front of you and the game that day."

Tonight, the Phillies can begin to take control with their newest addition on the mound.

"When you're pitching, when you're competing, it's what you want - to face the top guys to see what you're made of, to see what you're all about, especially when they're going hot," Blanton said. "You want to shut them down... When you know a team is playing really well, you know you have to bring your 'A' game to stay in a game.

"That's the ultimate challenge, I think."

For more Phillies news, notes and observations, visit Ryan Lawrence's Phillies blog at: http://www3.allaroundphilly.com/blogs/delcotimes/ryanl/blog.html

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