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Mauer may return before end of season

These are strange days for Twins catcher Joe Mauer. He suffered a concussion that still has him out of the lineup, and his best friend on the team is gone. The clubhouse is a different place for Mauer, but he plans on returning yet this season to play ball for the Twins.

The sometimes-reticent Mauer spoke for the first time recently regarding the loss of his friend and teammate Morneau. They have played together for a decade and have become very close -- to the point where Mauer thought they would play their whole careers together.

"That was the hope," Mauer told the Star Tribune. "One thing why we became such good friends is that we had the same goals, especially professionally. We might have been a little different when we first met. But he's the guy who works hard, plays the game the right way, always wants to get better."

Morneau was traded for Alex Presley on Aug. 31 and now he is in a pennant race with the Pittsburgh Pirates -- and Mauer is happy for him. But it may be tougher for Mauer to be left behind looking toward the empty locker next to him that used to house his comrade in arms.

"At first when I heard about it, there was a lot of frustration and things like that, on a personal level," Mauer said. "Probably a little selfish for me. I enjoyed Justin as a teammate for 10 years, and I've known him for 12. We go back a long way, but the more and more I think about it, it is a good move for him professionally.

"He's meant a lot to this team over the years and is a big reason for our success. And just not our team, in the community, too. He's going to be missed on a whole lot of levels."

It might be easier for Mauer to accept the change if he was back out on the field playing baseball with his other teammates, but instead he is fighting the lonely battle of returning from injury. Mauer has been out of the lineup since Aug. 19 with a concussion and is working his way back. He took batting practice with the team at Target Field on Friday, and is getting closer to a return.

Following that batting practice, Twins general manager Terry Ryan said he was becoming more comfortable with the possibility that Mauer will return before the end of the regular season.

"I don't think there's any doubt that will happen," Ryan said. "He hasn't had any setbacks. He's making progress every day."

The next question is where Mauer will play when he returns. In addition to Mauer, the Twins have three more catchers on the roster: Ryan Doumit, Chris Herrmannand Josmil Pinto. Doumit and Herrmann can play other positions. But Ryan tried to put to rest just where Mauer would play upon his return.

"I'm going to tell you what he has said," Ryan said. "He wants to catch. If it comes to that, where he is good to go and he wants to catch, we will catch him."

Mauer was told by his doctors that he can catch when he returns, but he told the Star Tribune that he is still dealing with symptoms and will not be cleared to play until they are gone. He said there is no exact timetable for a return, but he is improving. And as to the question of him shutting it down for the season, Mauer quickly put it to rest.

"I am not programmed that way," he told 1500ESPN. "I want to get out there as soon as I can. I love playing this game; hopefully I can out there soon. Just trying to get out there on the field right now. I know we don't have a lot of games left, I just want to get out on the field and help the team anyway I can."

On Saturday, Mauer took batting practice with his team and ran the bases before the Blue Jays game. That was a step forward from solo BP.

"At least he's out there getting acclimated," Ryan said. "He's getting a little better every day."

Ryan said Mauer's return is more a matter of days than weeks, so time will tell. But throughout the three-game series with the Blue Jays at Target Field, Mauer has been seen watching the games from the Twins dugout. Strange days, indeed.

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