TUCSON, Ariz. -- Chris Widger was packing up his locker Thursday morning, preparing to leave with the team for Milwaukee, when Ozzie Guillen strolled across the clubhouse toward the veteran catcher. The White Sox manager confirmed a piece of information Widger basically already knew.

Widger, a non-roster invitee to spring training, is breaking camp as the White Sox's backup backstop behind A.J. Pierzynski.

"Congratulations, kid," said Guillen with a smile, as he extended his hand to Widger. Those same pats on the back also came from Widger's teammates, as the 33-year-old immediately fit in as part of the White Sox clubhouse from Day 1.

Guillen pointed to Widger's right-handed bat as a reason for his selection over switch-hitting Ben Davis, who officially was outrighted to Triple-A Charlotte prior to Thursday's Cactus League finale. Widger's experience and handling of the pitching staff gave him the edge over Jamie Burke, who played 47 games for the White Sox in 2004, but was taken off the 40-man roster during the offseason when Pierzynski was signed.

Playing in a reserve role won't be an adjustment for Widger, a move that Guillen felt would be unfair to ask the 28-year-old Davis to carry out. It's something Widger became proficient at during the 2002 season with the Yankees and in 2003 with St. Louis.

"It's been pretty easy for me to adjust to actually," said Widger, who last started for Montreal during the 1998 and 1999 seasons. "The one nice thing about it is you are healthy every time you go out to play.

"This part of it won't be any different than what I've done behind (Jorge) Posada or (Mike) Matheny. When they want to give (Pierzynski) a rest, try to get my pitcher a win. That's basically a back-up's job -- just win games with that pitcher, that particular day, and give that starter a rest."

Making the team out of Spring Training stands as a distinctly different finish for Widger as compared to the past two seasons, when he was one of the last cuts by the Yankees and traded by the Cardinals to the Mets just prior to Opening Day, 2004. Widger declined the trade to New York, stepped away from affiliated baseball and thought a career that covered parts of eight seasons had come to a close.

But Widger returned to hit 16 home runs in 55 games for the Camden Riversharks, a team close to his New Jersey home in the independent Atlantic League, and decided he wanted to give baseball another chance. After hitting .250 this spring and working in harmony with the pitching staff, the White Sox decided Widger was more than worth the risk.

"It's nice to know that if you put the work in, everything pays off," Widger said. "They gave me all the chances in the world to make this team, and I got all the playing time I could ask for.

"I kept myself in too good of shape to go out that way," added Widger of his return to organized baseball. "I'm going to be 34 and I feel like I'm in as good of a shape as I was when I was 24 -- probably better shape. I was mentally beat up more than anything and needed to get away a little bit."

Mixed emotions: Davis and Widger are both represented by Mike Maas, and Widger said the two played golf three or four times this spring. But more than the friendship between the two catchers, Widger can relate to Davis from his very recent end-of-Spring Training disappointments.

"I feel terrible," said Widger of his good fortune causing Davis' situation. "I know what he's feeling and how bad he's feeling and how upset he probably is.

"So, as good as I feel about the path I've taken to get here, because it has been an up and down one the last couple of years, it's still a little bittersweet when you think about someone else has to pay the price to get something like that," Widger added.

Davis has a 24-hour period to accept the assignment to Charlotte or opt for free agency.

Noticeable absence: After 14 consecutive Opening Day starts, Frank Thomas will be spending Monday in Tucson when the White Sox start 2005 at U.S. Cellular Field against Cleveland. His streak ranks as the third longest in club history, one behind Luke Appling and Ray Schalk.

Houston's Jeff Bagwell will take over the lead among current players, as he makes his 15th straight Opening Day start.

"It's different because I've never missed Opening Day," Thomas said. "But it's what I'm dealing with, and I've prepared myself for that. This off-season, I knew it was going to be like this. It's one of those things you regret, but I just have to get healthy. Once I get healthy, I can play like I normally play."

The rehabilitation of Thomas' surgically-repaired left ankle continues over the next few weeks during extended spring training in Arizona, before Thomas will spend anywhere from 50 to 100 at-bats with Triple-A Charlotte on a minor-league rehab assignment. The key for Thomas is to continue breaking down scar tissue in his left ankle and run without pain.

Thomas is currently moving cautiously at about 50 to 60 percent, by his own estimation, and said the crossover move off the base is the toughest for him at this point. But he is ready for hard work in Arizona, as he keeps one eye on his target in Chicago.

"Of course I'll be watching," said Thomas of the White Sox's opening game. "It will be tough, but I will be watching.

Info:

"It will be fine. I know what I have to do," added Thomas of staying back in Arizona. "It will be quality time of doing what I really need to do. After I do my warm-ups in the morning, I'll just come straight out and run. That's more important than anything right now."

Around the horn: The White Sox will bring three extra players to the two weekend games in Milwaukee. They are catcher Raul Casanova, who played for the Brewers from 2000 to 2002, pitcher Dwayne Pollok and infielder Pedro Lopez. Pollock tied for the most minor-league saves in 2004 with 38 for Class A Winston-Salem ... Rockies manager Clint Hurdle presented the pre-game lineup card while wearing a beekeeper's hat, in reference to the swarm of bees that have plagued Tucson Electric Park during the past few weeks ... Joe Crede was scratched from Thursday's Cactus League finale, described as feeling under the weather ... Cliff Politte made his second straight scoreless appearance.

Coming soon: Jose Contreras takes to the mound as the White Sox complete the exhibition portion of their spring schedule at Miller Park in Milwaukee. Contreras was hit hard during his last Arizona start against Seattle in Peoria.