MINNEAPOLIS — Joe Mauer looked tanned, a little thinner and relaxed as he talked about returning to the Minnesota Twins.
His 57-game absence was hardly a vacation, however.
The four-time All-Star catcher calmly dismissed questions about his ability to play through discomfort, insisted he doesn't have some mysterious disease and characteristically tried to deflect focus back to the team.
The face of the franchise with the $184 million contract will always be scrutinized, though, and during the two months he missed, the spotlight only grew brighter as doubt about his future at the game's most demanding position increased.
"I don't see it being a problem in the years to come," Mauer said Thursday after the Twins announced they'll reinstate him from the 60-day disabled list to play Friday.
He went out April 12 with a condition called bilateral leg weakness, fatigue exacerbated at the time by a severe flulike virus. The weakness was caused by his body overcompensating for his left knee, on which he had arthroscopic surgery on last December.
Mauer was beat up last year, when his production dropped off. He tried to rehabilitate and rest in the offseason, but that didn't work so he had the operation later than desired for full recovery.
"Rehab is always preferred to doing surgery if you can do it," general manager Bill Smith said.
Mauer took spring training slowly and was assumed to be ready for the regular season, but he never felt right once April came.
"Before I actually went on the DL, I was like, 'Am I helping or hurting the team right now?' And that was something that I really struggled with," Mauer said. "It got to the point where I just couldn't even get out on the field, and you have to kind of step back and look at what you're doing."
He added: "As much as I'd like to snap my fingers and wish it would go away, it just needed to take the time."
Mauer was batting .235 with one extra-base hit when he went out.
"It was pretty evident to everybody that Joe wasn't the Joe Mauer we've come to expect over the last few years, and we made the decision to shut him down and basically restart the training and conditioning program," general manager Bill Smith said.
Left-handed reliever Glen Perkins will also be reinstated Friday from the 15-day disabled list. Outfielder Brian Dinkelman was sent to Triple-A Rochester and removed from the 40-man roster to make room for Mauer. Left-hander Chuck James was sent to Triple-A Rochester to make room for Perkins.
"This is the first piece of getting our ballclub back together," said Smith, who took shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka off the disabled list Wednesday.
Still missing are first baseman Justin Morneau, right fielder Jason Kubel, designated hitter Jim Thome, center fielder Denard Span and relief pitcher Joe Nathan. After an awful start that stuck them with the worst record in the majors, the Twins have won 11 of their last 13 games.
Mauer and the Twins were concerned enough about media attention they held a news conference Thursday and declared him off limits Friday to reporters.
"I don't want to be a distraction to my teammates, to this team. We just kind of got on a roll here," Mauer said.
Mauer said he's certain he's able to catch consecutive games and keep putting his 6-foot-5 frame in that crouch for the rest of the season — and beyond. Not once has he acknowledged he'll have to switch positions, though given his age, size, contract, early-career injury problems and elite hitting ability it seems inevitable that move will come.
"I don't think anybody's 100 percent right now in major league baseball. I'm feeling great. I'm making a lot of progress," Mauer said.
As for those rumors he was dealing with a condition more serious than leg weakness?
"I don't have Lyme disease. I can say that," he said, adding: "Is my knee good to go now? Yeah. I still have to work at it. I have no disease or anything like that, so I think that's probably a good thing to clear that up a little bit."
Mauer was able to play for his older brother, Jake, the manager at Class A Fort Myers. The Florida heat helped his conditioning, but the level of pitching won't compare to what he'll face starting Friday.
"I saw Joe Nathan yesterday, and that was kind of an eye-opener," Mauer said, adding: "Timing wise and hitting wise, I'm not where I need to be in midseason form, but more importantly it's 'Can I catch back-to-back or be out on the field and stay on the field for the rest of the year?'"
Mauer has also worked through soreness in his throwing shoulder. To those who question his ability to play through pain, Mauer said: "I think they're just misinformed. I think my reputation over the years has been the opposite of that."
Twins fans have been restless.
"I think most of them know how hard I work and how much I want to be out there. Nobody wants to be out there more than I do. I think a lot of that has come out of frustration," Mauer said. "I can tell you right now: Nobody has been more frustrated than me over the last month or last months."