WASHINGTON - Meanwhile, some 140 miles north-northeast of Nationals Park, while Phillies Nation restlessly watched Cliff Lee give up more runs in a single inning than he had in all but one of his starts to a bottom-tier offensive club, a small but significant subplot was unfolding.

In Reading, longtime home to the Phillies' Double A Eastern League affiliate, the host club's lineup boasted a new leadoff hitter. Shane Victorino dropped by for the first game of what is scheduled to be a brief rehab assignment.

After that, if there are no unanticipated hitches, Victorino will rejoin the big team in Pittsburgh in time for manager Charlie Manuel to write out his full projected lineup against the Pirates for the first time this season.

That's a good thing. It's also led to a fascinating parlor game that seems to have become all the rage back home, trying to predict the roster move the Phillies will make to open up a spot for their Gold Glove centerfielder.

What makes this extra spicy is that most of these transactions are pretty straightforward. This is different. Manuel said before last night's 10-2 loss to the last-place Nats - You can't win them all, the Daily News has learned - that he doesn't know what the outcome will be, and that might even be the whole truth and nothing but.

Here's an example of why this decision is more than a rubber-stamp formality.

One pretty obvious solution would be to put Ross Gload on the disabled list. Look at what happened in the top of the seventh after he pinch-hit and reached base on catcher's interference. He had no sooner navigated the 90 feet to the bag when pitcher Kyle Kendrick popped out of the dugout to run for him.

That's because Gload is trying to play through a painful hip condition. So it would be simple and logical enough to simply put him out of commission for a couple of weeks and hope the rest does him some good.

There's a catch, of course. There's always a catch. And, in a twisted way, it is made even more complicated by the recent torrid streak by rookie Domonic Brown.

Brown homered and doubled last night. After coming off the disabled list, he started his season in a 1-for-14 funk. Since then he's 10-for-19 (.526). If he's on the verge of becoming the everyday rightfielder and Gload is unavailable, that would leave Manuel without a lefthanded bat off the bench besides switch-hitter Michael Martinez, the Rule 5 draft pick.

So scratch Gload-to-the-DL. Even though Brown isn't expected to start against Nationals lefthander John Lannan this afternoon, indications are that his time is coming soon. It would be difficult to leave the manager empty-handed in the late innings with a tough righthanded reliever on the mound.

If left up to a popular ballot, the vox populi would probably vote Martinez off the island. And in the short term, that's a deceptively easy way out.

But . . . Manuel reaffirmed last night that he'd prefer not to risk losing the versatile and energetic bench player, who would have to clear waivers and be offered back to Washington before he could be sent down.

"I look at him and it's hard for us to play him a lot right now. But I like what I saw in spring training, especially as far as he played on the infield," the manager said. "It would be nice if we could play him more. I look at Michael and [Wilson] Valdez as we've got two utility payers. But the way our team is now, especially with Chase Utley's [knee] situation and the fact that we sometimes need a baserunner late in the game, it doesn't mean that Michael is going to be the guy.

"We don't know that yet. His value to the team . . . is good."

Going from 12 to 11 pitchers appears to be a non-starter. Valdez appears to be safe and so does backup catcher Dane Sardinha, at least until Brian Schneider comes off the DL.

So what we're left with is a choice between Ben Francisco and John Mayberry Jr. And that ain't easy.

Francisco (.227) was the starting rightfielder out of spring training. Mayberry has started 16 of the Phillies' last 17 games. Both have options remaining.

While Mayberry seems to be ahead on the depth chart at the moment, there are a couple of factors working against him. One is that even though he has started all but one game since May 14, and even though he homered last night, he's still just 12-for-59 (.203) in that stretch.

The other is that while Mayberry might be able to produce coming off the bench, he hasn't proved he can do that. Francisco has. So if push came to shove, he'd probably have the edge.

Mayberry hasn't really been given a lengthy audition. And Manuel has talked repeatedly about how he believes Mayberry can be a late bloomer like Jayson Werth. With a set outfield of Raul Ibanez, Victorino and Brown, though, it's difficult to envision Mayberry getting much big-league playing time for the foreseeable future.

Which means the odds are that he'll get it with the Triple A Lehigh Valley IronPigs, instead.

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