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Thome cleared to begin hitting

Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Jim Thome was cleared to start hitting yesterday, less than three weeks after breaking the middle finger on his right hand.

Thome injured his throwing hand during fielding drills March 5, and initially was concerned he might need pins inserted into the finger, which would have sidelined him up to two months.

Thome will wear a special splint on his finger for two weeks and his activity will be limited.

Williams closer

New York Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams is expected to play tomorrow for the first time this spring. Williams's appendix was removed Feb. 26. He is slated to make his debut in a minor league exhibition . . . Yankees righthander Jon Lieber, who will start the season on the disabled list with an injured right groin, might not be ready to pitch until May . . . Florida Marlins center fielder Juan Pierre will miss just a few days of workouts because of a dislocated right pinkie. Pierre was examined by team hand specialist Dr. Brian Fingado yesterday, and he will miss no more than five days of workouts . . . The Cleveland Indians are meeting with free agent Ugueth Urbina, four days after losing closer Bob Wickman for at least half the season. Urbina helped the Marlins win the World Series last season . . . The Texas Rangers signed lefthander Nick Bierbrodt to a minor league deal. Bierbrodt pitched in three exhibitions for the Red Sox this spring and opted for free agency after being outrighted to Pawtucket.

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