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03/20/09 5:45 PM ET
Mauer doubtful for Opening Day
All-Star catcher changing medication to help ailing lower back
By Kelly Thesier / MLB.com
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Twins finally have a diagnosis on what has been causing the soreness in Joe Mauer's lower back. But with just a little over two weeks remaining until the start of the regular season, it appears there won't be enough time to treat the problem and have the catcher ready to play on Opening Day.
The Twins have been hesitant to say that Mauer won't be ready to start the season, but the catcher himself acknowledged Friday that it's unlikely he'll be available, given the time needed to prepare himself to get back on the field.
When asked Friday if it was doubtful that he'd be ready for Opening Day on April 6, Mauer gave this response:
"Yeah, I just have to get healthy," Mauer said. "I don't think I'm ready to go out there and play in any games. I know [Opening Day] is getting closer. I really don't know if I'll be there or not."
What the Twins and Mauer do know now is that his lower back pain is a result of inflammation in his right sacroiliac joint -- where the base of the spine meets the top of the pelvis.
It's what Minnesota's doctors originally diagnosed as the cause of Mauer's pain, but the club wanted to make sure that was the source of the problem. So Mauer spent the past couple weeks undergoing a series of extensive tests and examinations to determine what else might be causing his pain.
The catcher flew to Baltimore last weekend to get a second opinion from a specialist there. Twins general manager Bill Smith said the team also consulted additional doctors in the Twin Cities, and everyone conferred that it was just inflammation and could be treated with a change in medication.
"It's going to take some time. How much, I don't know."
-- Joe Mauer, on how long it will take him to get into playing shape once he returns
"They've given us a treatment plan for Joe, which will hopefully reduce the inflammation and get him back on the field as soon as we can," Smith said.
Doctors aren't sure how long it may take to get the inflammation out of the joint, which makes setting a date for when Mauer might be able to get back to baseball activities difficult.
"There is not a timetable to say when he's going to be on the field," Smith said. "We'll see how he responds to this treatment and go from there."
While doctors have conferred over the past two weeks on his diagnosis, Mauer has continued to do cardio and strength exercises under the supervision of strength and conditioning coordinators Perry Castellano and John Kertis. In recent days, Mauer has even been able to increase the intensity of those workouts.
But Mauer has yet to take part in any workouts on the field. At times this spring, he's been able to hit off a tee, throw and even catch a bullpen session without a problem. But Mauer has been unable to do any running because of the pain in his back, which first began at the end of last season and has gotten worse.
"You have good days and bad days," Mauer said. "Today is not so good, I guess."
While the pain in his back is worst when he's been running, Mauer acknowledged that it varies depending on the day.
"Some days it's just doing everyday things, and some days it's jogging," Mauer said of the pain. "We know it's in there, and now we just have to get it out."
The cause of the inflammation is still not known, which Mauer said is the most frustrating part about it. Smith believes that the problem is not a chronic thing, but a "one-time thing -- he's never had it before. So the hope is that the new medication and some rest will get rid of the problem and allow Mauer's return to baseball activities.
"I don't think it'll take too long -- it's just getting your body in shape to play every day, to play every day at the Major League level," Mauer said. "It's going to take some time. How much, I don't know."
Since every doctor who has been consulted has concurred on the treatment, Smith was asked whether he was concerned that the extra measures to verify the diagnosis may have set the catcher's timetable back.
"No, I think it was an important part of the process," Smith said. "This is not a common ailment among players. We wanted to make sure that we had all the right answers and the right treatment so that we can get it right the first time and hopefully get him back on the field for the remainder of the season."
While there is a strong chance that Mauer could start the season on the disabled list, Smith said that "we don't have to make that decision yet."
The Twins will continue to look at catching prospects Jose Morales and Drew Butera to determine which of them might break camp with the team if Mauer is not ready to start the season. For Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, he's just trying to see how the situation plays out over the final few weeks of camp.
"I've been just planning Spring Training as we go anyway," Gardenhire said. "I'm playing it like [Mauer] is not here now. When he gets here, I'll change things up. If he doesn't get here at the start, I can't control it. I have to prepare myself for a season, and right now, he's not in it."