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03/12/12 3:53 PM ET

Field duty: Thome makes return to first base

Phillies hoping veteran slugger can help soften loss of Howard

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Jim Thome plopped down on a picnic table just outside the Phillies clubhouse Monday afternoon at Bright House Field.

"Just like riding a bike, right?" a reporter asked.

"Oh, no," he said emphatically. "No, no."

Thome played first base for four innings Monday in a Minor League Spring Training game at Carpenter Complex, the first time he had played first base in a game since 2007, when he played just eight innings there for the Chicago White Sox. The Phillies are hoping Thome, who has not played regularly at first since 2005, can play as many as 20 games there this season, despite being 41 and having a history of back problems.

Thome's ability to play first would soften the blow of losing Ryan Howard, who is recovering from an infection near his left Achilles and might not be back until midseason. It could also help Thome get enough at-bats to be effective as a pinch-hitter, which will be his primary role with the team.

"It felt good to be out there," Thome said. "It was just a lot of fun. It makes you really appreciate guys that win Gold Gloves and go out there, really good defensive players. Defense is something, for sure, for me personally I've always had to work real hard at. Hopefully we'll continue to do that and get better as we go."

The first ball hit to Thome came in the fourth inning. Right-hander Lisalberto Bonilla, who spent last season with Class A Lakewood, threw a nice changeup to infielder Albert Cartwright, who hit the ball off the end of the bat. The ball had some backspin on it and scooted right past Thome. It is tough to say, but perhaps he makes that play later in the spring. Time will tell.

"It'll find you," Thome said. "The ball always finds you when you haven't been out there in a while."

Thome fielded a ball cleanly later in the inning and had five putouts overall.

He said the biggest test will be seeing how his back feels Tuesday. Thome said as the game progressed he could feel the effects of crouching, moving and holding runners.

"Nothing bad," he said. "Just things that I haven't done in a while."

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel has said he would like to get Thome close to 200 at-bats this season, which depends completely on his ability to play first base. Lenny Harris had 83 at-bats as a pinch-hitter with the New York Mets in 2001. Those are the most pinch-hit at-bats for any player in a season since 1974.

Ross Gload had 74 pinch-hit at-bats last season, which ranks ninth since 1974.

Thome could get roughly 35 at-bats as the team's designated hitter during its nine Interleague road games in Baltimore, Minnesota and Toronto in June. But even if Thome got 80 pinch-hit at-bats, it would leave him at 115.

"Personally, I've never thrown at-bats out there," Thome said. "Look, I was brought out here to help us win. Whatever role, whatever the number of at-bats, that's obviously up to Charlie. My job as the player is to be prepared and continue to try to improve in every facet of the game and be a part of something we're trying to accomplish here."

Thome is not expected to play Tuesday, but he could be back at first in another Minor League game in a few days.

"That's the plan," he said.

Thome seemed to enjoy himself in the field Monday. But it certainly felt different to him. It has been a long time since he used his mitt in a real game.

"We were just working on being in position and kind of learning that again," Thome said. "I don't think you forget it, but until you're out there, as the game's flowing, you kind of learn all that as you're going again. It felt good to be out there. It was fun to be with these guys, talking baseball. We've got a lot more work to do, so hopefully we'll continue to get better as we go."

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