For the first time this season, Charlie Manuel's face brightened as he talked about the potential of the lineup he drew up that afternoon. Sitting in his office in the visitor's clubhouse at Atlanta's Turner Field, the veteran manager acknowledged that the decisions he faces grow less difficult each day he arrives at the park. On this particular afternoon, the sources of his optimism were Laynce Nix and Juan Pierre, a pair of low-price offseason acquisitions who played key roles in three of the runs the Phillies scored Thursday in a 4-0 win over the Braves. In taking two of three games from Atlanta, Manuel also received solid production from veteran Ty Wigginton, who drove in a pair of runs in a 4-2 win and reached base four times in a 15-13 loss.
"We've got some established guys who are proving that they can strengthen our team," Manuel said.
The result is a lineup that finally features more answers than questions. The two constants are Jimmy Rollins at the top of the order and Nix at No. 6. Heading into the start of this weekend's series in Washington, those two players filled those slots in the order in six straight games. The result: four wins and 33 runs. Along with batting Hunter Pence at cleanup and Carlos Ruiz seventh, Manuel appears to have found the players he likes in four of the eight spots in his order.
Everything else hinges on the most recent subplot to develop: what to do at No. 2. The newest wrinkle is Pierre batting behind Rollins, a combination that led to two runs in Thursday's victory. Rollins led off the game with a single, then moved into scoring position when Pierre legged out a bunt hit off rookie righthander Randall Delgado. A long flyout by Shane Victorino pushed Rollins to third, where he scored on a sacrifice fly by Pence.
In the ninth, Pierre led off with a single, then scored on a two-run home run by Victorino that gave Joe Blanton plenty of cushion to finish his first shutout since 2007.
After the game, Manuel acknowledged that he likes Pierre in the two-hole, where his ability to bunt can play a bigger role if Rollins continues to get on base the way he has since moving back to the top of the order. The move also puts a powerful bat in the leadoff spot, which should give the Phillies a better chance at two-out RBI, especially with Ruiz and his rosy OBP batting seventh. Heading into Friday, Pierre had four hits in eight at-bats with multiple runners on base, but all four of those hits were singles, producing a total of four RBI. Rollins had two hits in eight at-bats with multiple runners on base, also resulting in four RBI.
"I like Pierre there, but I also like [Placido Polanco] there, too," Manuel said. "I like both of them there. I like Juan Pierre a lot. Juan Pierre is a good fit on our team. But when Polly is right in the two-hole, he can be good there, too. That's actually a good problem to have."
But it means the tinkering is not yet complete. On Friday, Manuel unveiled a lineup that had Pierre batting second and Polanco batting third against dominant righthander Stephen Strasburg. The rationale was easy to understand: Against a pitcher who has yielded only four runs all season, putting the team's two best contact hitters behind Rollins might be the best way to push a runner home. But it came with the cost of moving Victorino to No. 5, despite the fact that he was 6-for-23 with four RBI and three runs in five straight games batting third. It also meant letting Strasburg face five straight hitters - Pete Orr at No. 8, Kyle Kendrick at No. 9, Rollins at No. 1, Pierre at No. 2 and Polanco at No. 3 - who had combined this season for a .310 on-base percentage, a .314 slugging percentage and zero home runs.
As long as Wigginton keeps hitting, such a lineup probably will be the exception instead of the norm. Nix is a better defender than Pierre in leftfield, and Wigginton has offered far more righthanded production at first base than John Mayberry Jr.
With all of the variables Manuel still must consider, chief among them Nix' struggles against lefties and the need to rest the oft-injured Polanco, he will likely never reach a point where his lineup is automatic. But the situation is a lot clearer than it was for the first couple weeks of the season.