Interleague is almost over. Now what for Thome?

Veteran admits pinch hitting is a no easy task

It's an issue that's staring the Phillies in the face.

What will be Jim Thome's role when Interleague play, along with the freedom to have him be the designated hitter, disappears today?

It's always easier to put off the inevitable, especially when things are going so well now.

During the last seven Interleague games the Phillies have played against the Orioles, Twins and Blue Jays, Thome, 41, hit .407 (11-for-27) with three home runs, two doubles, 13 RBIs and four walks. He posted in a .815 slugging percentage and a .500 on-base percentage.

He drove in at least one run in a season-high six consecutive games (June 6-14) and has six hits in his last nine at-bats with runners in scoring position (.667 BA, a double and 10 RBIs).

Anybody who said Thome was washed up was wrong. Clearly, the guy can still hit.

But he likely can't play in the field because of his chronic lower back problems, which only raises red flags because the number of at-bats he'll get will drastically be reduced once Interleague play ends.

"The bending over. The taking ground balls. That was obviously the biggest challenge that I had," Thome said after being activated from the disabled list, where he was from April 29 to June 6.

Consider this fact: From April 5 to June 7,the Phillies played 59 games. Thome appeared in only 14, four of which he started. During that stretch, he had fewer at-bats (20) than he did during the last six Interleague games, all of which he started (27).

And it's hard to argue that there's not a direct correlation between the regularity of which he's been getting at-bats and the success he's having.

Thome, who ranks eighth on the all-time home runs list with 607, hit only .100 (2-for-20) with no extra-base hits and no RBIs before going on the DL. That's quite the contrast from what he's done in his last seven games, all of which he was the Phillies starting DH.

That's all going to end soon, and Thome knows there's nothing easy about going back to being strictly a pinch hitter.

"Let's face it: You really tip your hat to guys who can pinch hit full time," Thome admitted. "I don't want to sit here and say yes [I can be good at it] because [the] bottom line is pinch hitting is a job you have to put a lot of time into. I think the key is to continue to work and do everything you can before BP and during the game to put yourself in a good position during the game."

Manager Charlie Manuel said Thome will take extra batting practice off of pitchers who throw hard and ones who throw a lot of breaking balls. If a pitcher is scheduled to throw on the side, he might just pitch to Thome instead.

Thome, who needs one more home run to become the fourth player in MLB history to hit 100 home runs with four different teams (Alex Rodriguez, Darrell Evans, Reggie Jackson), is also expected to hit off a machine in the cage and push the speed to between 90 and 100 mph.

Even general managerRuben Amaro Jr.isn't so sure how effective Thome will be if he's "going to be limited to" being just a pinch hitter.

"I don't know," Amaro admitted. "That's a good question. We'll find out."

There's another disconcerting issue with Thome not being able to play in the field: It puts pretty drastic restrictions on the moves Manuel can make and the flexibility that comes with those moves.

Manuel is insistent he can make it work.

"That hurts some, yeah," he said. "But we've had that guy for about two or three years."