SINCE THE Phillies completed spring training, they haven't exactly been consistent. But one thing that has been consistent is Charlie Manuel's stance on sticking with the player with the hot hand.

Especially when it comes to the battle for the starting catcher position.

Last night it became apparent who held the hot hand, as Carlos Ruiz hit the game-winning home run in the bottom of ninth inning off Derrick Turnbow to give the Phillies a 4-3 victory over visiting Milwaukee.

"Now you see why I have Carlos back there," Manuel joked afterward.

Just hours earlier, Manuel said he had become overly impressed with the way Ruiz has been hitting and managing the pitching staff in his first full season with the Phillies.

Ruiz, whose home run was his third and the Phillies' first walk-off shot of the season, said he feels he has benefited more from his increased role since Mike Lieberthal departed for Los Angeles as a free agent.

It's not only showing up in the stats, as the 28-year-old Panama native nicknamed "Chooch" is hitting .295 with 17 RBI, but it is evident in his confidence as well.

"I'm very relaxed right now," said Ruiz, who went 2-for-4 last night. "Relaxed, but not comfortable. I have to look at every day for what it's worth. Today is a new day, so I can't afford to look back on yesterday or the day before and think I'm going to be able to ride that. I know I have to continue to prove myself day in and day out."

While Ruiz has started 24 of 39 games this season, he understands that he still is in a battle with Rod Barajas, who was acquired as a free agent in the offseason from the Texas Rangers. Barajas, who signed a 1-year, $2.5 million contract with a club option for $5 million in 2008, has started 15 games and hit just .178 with two homers and four RBI in 45 at-bats.

Initially it was expected that Ruiz would be the successor to Lieberthal. But after the Phillies signed Barajas, Manuel insisted he would go with whoever was hot.

Starting nine of the last 11 games, Ruiz has proved to be nothing but hot. During that stretch he is batting .310 (9-for-29) with five runs and six RBI.

"Right now he has the hot hand," Manuel said. "It's not like I stepped away from [Barajas] or anything, I just think with the way Ruiz is playing right now that he has earned the right to play."

In an 11-7 victory over Chicago Saturday, Ruiz went 3-for-3 with a home run and a double, driving in three runs and scoring twice. Ruiz has yet to commit an error this season and has a catcher's ERA of 4.37.

While Barajas is obviously not pleased with his lack of playing time, he understands he has no one to blame but himself.

"What's frustrating is that I'm not playing as good as I'm capable of playing right now, so I can't be frustrated with anyone but myself," he said.

While there is still no clear-cut word on who the starting catcher is or will become in the near future, both catchers said the competition is just that and no bitterness exists between the two.

"We talk about a lot of things regardless of who's back there catching because we both know we can learn from each other's mistakes," Ruiz said. "I know [Barajas] is going to go out and play 100 percent whenever he gets the chance to play, so I have to make sure I continue to do the same thing while I'm out there as well."

Barajas said the biggest reason for his struggles might be his comfort level playing in a new league. Barajas spent the past three seasons with the Rangers, where he averaged 108 games. After hitting .256 with 11 home runs and 41 RBI last season with the Rangers, Barajas said he understands it will take time to adjust to playing in a new league.

"It was never promised to me from Day 1 that I would be the guy behind the plate the majority of the time so I expected to come in here and for it to be a competition," said Barajas, who has a 4.99 catcher's ERA as a starter.

Barajas said despite not starting, his daily approach to the game has not changed. He says he remains sharp by taking extra batting practice and working on studying pitchers and their style in the National League.

"I come to the field looking to play every day. Obviously that isn't happening, but I still have to prepare and do what I need to do so when I am called to the lineup I'm ready to go," Barajas said.

"If I go out there and perform, I'm pretty sure everything else will take care of itself as far as playing time is concerned." *