MINNEAPOLIS -- It didn't take long for Joe Mauer to get a reminder of just how much time he'd missed at the start of this season. When the All-Star catcher arrived in the Twins' clubhouse at the Metrodome on Friday after missing the club's first 22 games due to an inflamed right sacroiliac joint, he noticed something different. The open locker that sits between his and Justin Morneau's wasn't empty or even half-full -- it was packed with Morneau's shoes, clothes and extra equipment. "His stuff is all over the place," Mauer joked about the locker the two usually share. "I'm going to have to have a little talk with him after the game."
All space issues aside, Mauer couldn't keep from smiling on Friday afternoon as he talked about getting ready to make his season debut for the Twins in that night's contest against the Royals. Mauer met with the media for the first time since the Twins departed Fort Myers, Fla., at the end of Spring Training without him. He spoke excitedly about being back with his teammates and getting ready to step foot on the field at the Metrodome for the first time this season. "It feels good to be home," Mauer said. "It felt like a long month rehabbing. ... But I feel good. I don't think anybody is 100 percent in there [clubhouse]. I don't know how guys tell you they are 60- or 80-[percent] or whatever. I'm either good to go or not good to go. I'm good to go." The Twins officially activated Mauer from the disabled list on Friday, outrighting pitcher Juan Morillo to Triple-A Rochester to make room for the catcher on the roster. Getting the start behind the plate on Friday night, Mauer's name was slotted right back in the No. 3 spot of the batting order -- the spot he's occupied for most of his career. And for Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, it was certainly nice just to be able to write Mauer in the lineup once again. "He brings a calming influence and that great swing that he's got, I don't think that ever goes away," Gardenhire said. "It's going to be nice to get him back here. His presence means a lot on this baseball team." Mauer, who turned 26 on April 19, was greeted with a standing ovation from the Metrodome crowd during his first at-bat on Friday night and generated a huge roar when he belted a homer. But while the talk has been about the boost that Mauer will provide offensively to the team, Gardenhire tried to temper the expectations slightly for the two-time batting champion. "This is an extension of Spring Training for him," Gardenhire said. "Remember, our guys had 20-plus games in Spring Training and they've had another 20 now. Joe has probably played 10 games, so he's not totally perfect for this thing. We have to give him the benefit of the doubt just like anybody else starting the season." Mauer is returning to the Twins after playing for a little over a week in the Minors. He took part in a handful of extended spring training games where his brother, Jake, was his manager. Then he joined Class A Fort Myers for his official rehab assignment and batted .400 (6-for-15) with two doubles and four RBIs in five contests, catching four and being the designated hitter in one. Although things went well in Florida, Mauer acknowledged that there will likely be an adjustment period for him as he sees Major League pitching for the first time since last September. But that's not to say that Mauer is not expecting to contribute to his team. "I always expect a lot [of myself]," Mauer said. "It's just whatever I can do. I felt pretty good down there with some of the timing and stuff, but more importantly, I felt good catching and that's what I wanted to do down there." Just getting back to this point is the end of a long road for Mauer. He spent all winter trying to discover what was causing the back problems he endured over the final month of the 2008 season. He had surgery on Dec. 22 to eliminate a kidney obstruction in an attempt to ease the back problems. But when the injury lingered as he tried to rehab during Spring Training, the catcher endured many tests -- including a visit to a specialist in Baltimore -- to determine the right diagnosis. And in the end, it was determined that inflammation in the right sacroiliac joint was causing his back problems. "It's been real tough," Mauer said. "Since the last game of last year, I wasn't feeling very good. It was an offseason of visiting doctors and trying to get on the right path to come back up and play. It's been a long road, but like I said, I just can't wait to get out there tonight and get back out there with the guys." Back problems have been known to linger for players, but Mauer didn't seem too concerned about the possibility that the inflammation -- which is rare in athletes -- could reoccur. "I think it's behind me," Mauer said. "I'm more worried about the other stuff, like just getting in regular playing shape. But like I said, I went down there wanting to catch back-to-back days and right now I've been able to do that twice. I feel pretty good heading into tonight." And so did the Twins, thanks to finally having their All-Star catcher back.
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.