PITTSBURGH -- Batting fifth, and playing first base, number 25 Jim Thome.
It has been a long time since any PA announcer in any Major League Baseball stadium has uttered those words. It happened on Sunday at PNC Park. The first two games between the Pirates and the Phillies were sold out the first time thats happened to start a season in Pittsburgh history. That wasnt the case for the rubber match. Whole sections of the stadium were completely empty or sparsely populated (attendance was 19,856), and many of the people who showed up were Phillies supporters.
Before the first pitch, they cheered Thomes introduction. It was a thin crowd, and the ovation wasnt nearly as big as it would have been had it happened in Philly or in a town that regularly turns out to support its baseball team. Even so, they applauded the man, who hadnt played the field for nearly five years. Before Sunday, the last time Thome needed to bring his glove to work was June, 2007.
It was good to be back out there, said Thome, who went 0 for 3 in the Phillies' 5-4 loss to the Pirates. I wish we could have won the ballgame. Thats part of it. But, I guess, all in all, it felt good, yeah.
It was the moment everyone anticipated since it was announced that Thome would return to Philadelphia after leaving the Phillies organization seven seasons ago. With Ryan Howard mending his ruptured Achilles for an indefinite period, people wondered whether Thome could still play first base and, if so, how well and for how long. He is 41 years old now, and he has dealt with chronic back pain for years.
During the off-season, Thome started a new workout regimen lots of stretching and Pilates and other physical contortions designed to keep his 6-foot-3, 250-pound frame healthy and limber. Last year he played 93 games with the Indians and Twins, hitting 15 home runs and adding 50 RBIs. But since leaving Philly, and prior to Sunday, Thome had played just 28 innings at first base.
No one was sure quite what to expect. Thome, after all, is nearing the end of his career. This is his 22nd season in the big leagues, an excellent career that has produced 604 home runs for five different clubs. At some point, the end comes (for everyone, evidently, but Jamie Moyer). Besides his age and the wear on his body, Thome didnt play more than six innings in the field during spring training this year. Thats the same amount of innings he played on Sunday before being Manuel decided to sit him down.
In the bottom of the fourth, Thome did something that hasnt always been easy for Ryan Howard (not to mention something that has frustrated Phils fans when Howard is at first base): he turned 3-6-3 doubleplay without much trouble. Manuel said that Thome looked good in the field, and the manager toyed with the idea of leaving him in the game a little longer. Instead, he decided to proceed cautiously with Thome, who wont start the home opener at Citizens Bank Park on Monday to give him time to rest.
I think he can play about 20 games, Manuel said. I dont know. He might play more. If we start pushing him, were asking a whole lot out of him. He has a chronic back problem. I used to say all the time, a first baseman dives a lot. And hes a big guy. When he hits the ground, it always seems like his chest is always hitting the ground first. If you think about it, if he plays 20 or 25 games, thats enough.
"Im going to pick my spots and the pitchers I want to play him against. It depends. He might play a little bit more while Howard is out. We just have to wait and see. Just as soon as I say how many hes going to play, it wont happen that way. Itll be short or more, and youll say, 'Oh, hes under playing him, hes over playing him,' or whatever.
Someone snarky quipped how that doesnt sound like the Philadelphia media at all to second guess the manager and use his words against him. Manuel had a good laugh at that. It was one few amusing moments for the Phillies in Pittsburgh, where they havent won a series since 2008. The Pirates won on Saturday and Sunday by coming from behind late in both games.
Give the Pirates credit, Thome said. They battled back. They swung the bats anytime you play the first series, things are always magnified. Thats part of the game.