Who's on first? For Manuel, it's not an easy call

Who's on first? For Manuel, it's not an easy call

PHILADELPHIA -- Most managers like to make their players as comfortable as possible. Let them know what their roles are. Keep them from wondering or being surprised.

Charlie Manuel is no exception. Except that right now, it's impossible for him to do that.

For the last six years, when he sat down to make out the Phillies' lineup, Manuel knew that he'd almost always be putting Ryan Howard at first base. Not anymore. Howard is on the disabled list, still recovering from surgery to repair the left Achilles tendon he tore on the final play of the Phils' final game last October.

How different has it been? Well, in the first four games, Manuel started four different first basemen: Ty Wigginton, Laynce Nix, Jim Thome and John Mayberry Jr.

"It's different. It's definitely different," the manager said.

The wheel of fortune landed on Wigginton on Thursday night at Citizens Bank Park. And it turned out to be the right move. The versatile infielder/outfielder made a nice defensive play that potentially saved two runs in the top of the sixth, then hit his first home run as a Phillie in the bottom of the seventh. That provided some insurance in a 3-1 win over the Marlins.

Manuel appreciated the leather, but he's always going to go for the lumber.

"I'm trying to feel everything out and get to the point where our best lineup is," he said. "But you can play in our lineup. Hey, if you're hot, you can play. The guy who moves the baseball earns the right to play. I think the players understand that. That's kind of how I look at that. If you're hitting the baseball and you're hitting it good, you'll be in there."

That's not always as simple as it sounds. Because in addition to trying to win that particular game, he's always trying to keep everybody as sharp as possible.

"That's tough. That's real tough. Because when you look at the guys we've got, they've got to get at bats," Manuel said. "In order for us to get something out of [Thome], he's got to get some at-bats. Nix has got to get some at-bats. He's got some power and he's a pretty good hitter. Wigginton is a strong guy and he can hit the ball out of the ballpark. Those guys have to get some playing time. They have to."

So when the game ends, Manuel's work is far from done. When he went home Thursday night, he was already thinking about who would be at first base against Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey on Friday night.

It's not just who plays first, either. Because if it's Mayberry, he then has to figure out whether to start Juan Pierre or somebody else in left in his place.

"Man, it's tough," he said. "I decided [to use Wigginton against Marlins starter Mark Buehrle] because [Pierre] was 3-for-12 against him. Ty was 5-for-19 and he had three walks and two doubles and a home run. And I decided he definitely needed a game to play. He hasn't been getting up there very much and I wanted to play him and put Mayberry in left."

It's more than just numbers, too. Manuel will consider whether the opposing pitcher is right- or left-handed and how his style matches up with his various first base possibilities.

All those factors go into to trying to decide who the best option and it isn't easy. It's also tough on the players, who don't know until they get to the park most nights whether they're starting.

"As a player, it's our job to show up here every day no matter what your role is," Wigginton said. "Expect to be in that lineup and show up ready to play. That's Charlie's job to write the lineup card and it's our job to be ready to go," he said.

He laughingly added that he hopes to keep making it difficult for Manuel until Howard returns.

"If we all get hot, that's when it gets fun. That's the object," Wigginton said. "Every one of us wants to make it tough not to write our name in there. That goes for all 25 guys on the team. I'm sure they all want to be in there every day.

"I really like where my swing is at. It's just a matter of getting good pitches to hit and putting good swings on them. It's baseball. It's what it is. It's been going on for years."

Fortunately for Manuel, he doesn't have 25 different guys who can play first base. Although, at times, it must seem that way.

Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.