Punto's return appears imminent

SEATTLE - Twins manager Ron Gardenhire answered the question before it was asked.

"Day-to-day," he said with a chuckle. "That's where we are at. I don't have a time frame. All I know is that we're going day-to-day with it. He's got to go out on the field and run around. He's doing his work. We'll have to see how much he can do and how he feels.

"That's where we're at with Nick."

Gardenhire was speaking about third baseman Nick Punto, who missed two games last weekend because of a sprained left ankle that became swollen and had the Twins worried he would miss two weeks.

Punto is much better and indicated that he could return to the lineup tonight.

"It's gotten a lot better the last two days," Punto said.

Luis Rodriguez started at third base Tuesday and could play tonight if the Twins feel Punto needs one more day off.

That came as a big relief to Gardenhire, who initially was told by team doctors Punto would be out a minimum of two weeks.

"Now we're back to day-to-day," Gardenhire said, "which is better."

Regardless, Gardenhire expects for help to emerge.

"When someone goes down, someone else has to step up and play," Gardenhire said, "You can let them knock your socks off of you and keep playing. We choose to keep playing."

Bullpen settled

Righthander Jesse Crain, who missed a week because of a sore shoulder, is back and was available for duty Tuesday night.

"If it would have been August or September I would have tried to come back during the weekend," said Crain, who has a 2.45 ERA in four appearances, "but there was no point in pushing it. It should be ready for the long haul. If feels like nothing was ever wrong with it."

Crain will assume seventh-inning duties and Juan Rincon will handle the eighth. Rincon went two innings on Saturday against Tampa Bay, which allowed him to get back into a routine after dealing with a sore neck the opening week of the season and the death of his mother-in-law last week.

Ichiro still a pest

Talk before the game was on how to deal with Seattle outfielder Ichiro Suzuki, who has moved to center field from right field. But worrying about him on the basepaths (he's stolen 40 bases in a row without being caught) is still the main concern.

"We found this out a long time ago with a guy like Ricky Henderson," Gardenhire said. "You can't let him totally determine what you are trying to do. He's going to get his stolen bases. He's going to get his base hits."

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Nicholas Paul Punto