LAKEWOOD, N.J. - Ryan Howard had more than a routine start last night in making his first rehab start with the Class A Lakewood BlueClaws. Before the game, his No. 29 jersey became the first Lakewood number ever to be retired, and he later broke up a no-hit bid with an RBI double in the sixth inning.

Howard, who last night wore No. 29, as he did with the BlueClaws in 2002, batted third in the lineup and left the game after six innings with three at-bats. Before a sellout crowd of 10,032, the second largest crowd in team history, he played for the first time since spraining his left ankle against Washington on Aug. 1.

In his final at-bat, Howard drove a 3-1 pitch into the left-centerfield gap for a one-hop RBI double to the wall with one out, recording the first of two hits off Greensboro starter Chad James in a 4-1 Lakewood defeat.

"It was a good day," Howard said. "To have my number retired here was something special. Lakewood will always have a special place in my heart.

"My first two at-bats were to see some pitches and get some swings. In my third at-bat, I wanted to test [the ankle], and when I hit the double, it felt good planting and pushing off.

"My ankle felt pretty good both running down to first and running down to second. It was also good accelerating and decelerating. There was soreness when I started [the game]. The swelling and the tenderness are to be expected, but it didn't really bother me. It appears to be getting better every day. I felt pretty good running around."

Before going on the disabled list, Howard was hitting .292 with 23 homers and 81 RBI. He had eight homers and 26 RBI in July.

In the field in the second inning, Howard scooped up a throw from second on an attempted doubleplay. He also fielded two fielder's choice plays cleanly through the first five innings, but was charged with an error in the sixth when he dropped a throw from shortstop Alan Schoenberger.

Howard was to receive treatment this morning before heading to Lehigh Valley for a second rehab start tonight. He also might play there tomorrow before his proposed return to the Phillies Monday against Houston.

"Anything is possible," Howard said on the possibility of returning to the Phillies lineup tomorrow. "I think [returning] Sunday is very realistic. I'll see how I feel [this morning and tonight]. I plan to ice it to help keeping the stiffness and soreness down. Once I get there, Charlie [Manuel] will want me to go at it full bore."

In the first inning, Howard worked a walk after swinging and missing on the 2-0 and 3-1 pitches.

Howard led off the fourth and he tapped an apparent single to rightfield. But Greensboro second baseman Wes Long, playing in short right on the shift, threw Howard out at first. Howard ran fairly well and showed no signs of injury.

Howard's number retirement initially was scheduled for Sept. 2, but was changed when his rehab start was announced. Howard, who was given a standing ovation, was joined at home plate by his mother Cheryl and brother Corey.

As a BlueClaw in 2002, Howard hit .280 with 19 homers and 87 RBI. *