Atlanta starter Tim Hudson may be hoping that Philadelphia decides to wait one more day before having slugging first baseman Ryan Howard make his season debut.

Howard, though, is likely to return to the Phillies this evening in time for play the opener of a three-game series with the visiting Braves.

The 2006 National League MVP hasn't played in the majors since suffering a torn Achilles tendon while making the final out in Philadelphia's series- ending Game 5 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Oct. 7. In what was a symbolic image of the Phillies' disappointing season, Howard made it only halfway up the line before crumpling to the ground as his club was eliminated from the postseason.

Howard recently began a rehab assignment with Class-A Lakewood before playing nine innings at first base on Thursday night with Triple-A Lehigh Valley. He went 2-for-3 with an RBI and felt good afterwards.

"I feel like it's pretty close," said Howard. "I think it's just being able to manage the soreness and all that kind of stuff. And it's been good. It hasn't been that sore or stiff or anything like that. Just trying to stay in front of that stuff."

The outing was encouraging enough to the Phillies that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. announced after last night's 6-5 loss to the Mets that Howard is "likely" to play in Philadelphia tonight.

Howard, who hit .253 in 152 games last season with 33 homers and 116 runs batted in, is expected to be evaluated this afternoon before a decision is made for sure.

The 32-year-old hit at least 45 homers in four straight seasons from 2006-09 and is a career .327 batter against Hudson with six homers and 14 RBI.

The Phillies could certainly use a healthy Howard as they sit 13 games out of first place in the National League East. They lost for the seventh time in eight games last night when Jonathan Papelbon blew his second save of the season.

Kyle Kendrick gets the start for Philadelphia tonight and if not for the first inning of his previous outing, he could be coming off a victory.

Kendrick gave up five runs and two homers in the first inning of a June 28 outing versus the Pirates, but ended up pitching seven innings and getting a 5-4 defeat. He retired 19 of the final 23 batters faced and has pitched to a 7.67 earned run average in five starts (0-4) since his last win on June 1.

The 27-year-old righty is 2-8 with a 5.35 ERA in 17 outings this season, including 12 starts. He has good career numbers versus the Braves, going 6-1 with a 2.53 ERA in 15 games (10 starts).

Kendrick will hope that Howard can do some damage tonight against Hudson, who hadn't allowed more than three runs in any of his previous four starts (3-1) before getting drilled by Washington on Sunday.

The 36-year-old righty was charged with six runs -- five earned -- on eight hits and two walks in six innings of first. Four of those runs allowed came in the first and the veteran fell to 6-4 with a 3.87 ERA in 12 starts this season.

Hudson will try to even his career record against the Phillies after splitting two decisions in four starts against them last year. Lifetime, he is 7-8 with a 3.71 ERA in 22 starts against Philadelphia.

The Braves head to Philly after splitting a 10-game homestand. They finished even on the trek with yesterday's 7-3 win over the Cubs.

Jason Heyward and Brian McCann both hit two-run homers, while Freddie Freeman and Juan Francisco also went deep. Mike Minor carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning but was charged with three runs -- two earned --in 6 1/3 innings.

"I just tried to throw strikes," said Minor about his offense providing him with a five-run cushion. "It was more just trying to go after hitters and I think I was overthrowing."

The Phillies have won nine of their past 10 versus the Braves.