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Peter Gammons is ready for another Opening Day

MIAMI -- This is when we'll finally begin to see how much change has really paid off.

After several years of playoff absences, the respective front offices of the Mets and Marlins felt a switch at manager was necessary last year. Terry Collins of the Mets and Edwin Rodriguez of the Marlins will begin their respective quests to transform a culture and build success when they face each another on Friday, when Sun Life Stadium hosts its final Opening Day at 7:10 p.m. ET.

The matchup between the two National League East rivals will feature the Mets' Mike Pelfrey and the Marlins' Josh Johnson, and it will signal the start of the final season before Florida moves into its highly anticipated retractable-roof stadium in 2012.

For Rodriguez, who took the job when Fredi Gonzalez -- now with the Braves -- was dismissed on June 23, this will be his first Opening Day as a big league manager.

For Collins, who last managed the Angels in 1999, it's his first in a long time.

"This is the ultimate position to be in," Collins said, "and it's great to be back."

The Mets -- apparently fed up with missing out on the playoffs for four straight years -- opted to start fresh this offseason, replacing general manager Omar Minaya with Sandy Alderson and Jerry Manuel with Collins.

Then, toward the end of Spring Training, they cut ties with mercurial pitcher Oliver Perez and second baseman Luis Castillo -- two players symbolic of the Mets' recent underachievement.

This year, right fielder Carlos Beltran, limited to 145 combined games the past two years and bothered by ongoing knee issues this spring, will look to prove that he can still be a serviceable Major League player.

Shortstop Jose Reyes, in a walk year and seemingly feeling good this spring, will try to reinsert himself into the conversation as the best shortstop in baseball.

And Johan Santana and Jason Bay -- both of whom will start the season on the disabled list -- will strive to bounce back themselves when they return.

Opening Day is about new beginnings for all 30 clubs.

The Mets just seem to want one more badly than anybody else.

"I know that Terry will help this organization a lot, as well as Sandy," center fielder Angel Pagan said. "He's got a lot of knowledge in this business, and that's what this organization needs -- a turnaround. And we're pretty confident that it's going to happen this year."

Besides cutting ties with Perez and Castillo and watching reliable lefty specialist Pedro Feliciano depart via free agency, the Mets' new regime opted against making major changes before getting a look at the club itself.

So while many are picking the Phillies to win it all, and many others are especially fond of the Braves' roster, the Mets -- for the first time in a long time -- are flying under the radar in what many see as a transition year for the franchise.

But Collins believes his new club can compete now, and he's looking forward to the arduous task of making that happen.

"I love competition," the fiery skipper said. "I think that's what the game is about. ... It's going to be a good division, and I'm looking forward to the challenge of it all."

Friday will be the day Rodriguez's Spring Training promise to his players -- that they'd be "the last team standing come October" -- will be put to the test.

The Marlins, like the Mets, are undergoing a bit of a changeover. This offseason, they were forced to part ways with Dan Uggla after being unable to negotiate a contract extension with him, trading the slugger to the Braves for infielder Omar Infante and reliever Mike Dunn.

But the Marlins addressed their two biggest areas of need -- catching and bullpen help -- by bringing in an assortment of relievers and signing John Buck. They'll hope to make the playoffs for the first time since winning it all in 2003 with two stars in Johnson and shortstop Hanley Ramirez, several talented young position players -- right fielder Mike Stanton, left fielder Logan Morrison, center fielder Chris Coghlan and first baseman Gaby Sanchez -- and a good-looking rotation that added Javier Vazquez.

Buck believes the Marlins' staff -- with Johnson, Ricky Nolasco, Vazquez and Anibal Sanchez -- can compete with the Phillies' foursome of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels.

"If you look at us and you throw our staff up against those guys, we're not giving up one game, even if you match it up as it is," Buck said. "I feel very confident going into the season that our staff is going to be capable of doing what they can be doing."

It'll all start with Johnson, the rotation stalwart who has been one of baseball's best pitchers since coming back from Tommy John surgery on July 10, 2008.

Over the past two years, the 27-year-old right-hander has gone 26-11 with a 2.80 ERA while making 61 starts. Last year, he finished fifth in the NL Cy Young Award voting.

"If you're struggling, you think, 'Who do we have throwing tomorrow?' JJ perks you right up," Morrison said. "You have a chance. No matter if your offense is struggling, defense is struggling, you know what, he's going to give you a chance to win the game."

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