Tom Nieto has watched Justin Morneau rehab for eight days, and the manager at Class AAA Rochester is convinced that Ron Gardenhire will see the MVP-caliber first baseman of old when he rejoins the Twins in Cleveland on Friday.

"He's been doing good, he's been here [eight] days, and he's really progressed in his at-bats," said Nieto, a former Twins catcher. "He's having great at-bats now. He hit a home run [Wednesday] night, had an infield single, had a couple doubles the other night. He's moving around good and he looks like he's at full-go."

After going 0-for-4 Thursday night, Morneau hit .367 with four doubles, a home run, eight RBI and eight runs scored in seven games with Rochester.

Nieto said that Morneau, who last played for the Twins on June 9 and missed 53 games since then, has primarily played in the field with the Red Wings. He was the designated hitter Thursday.

Nieto said Morneau is moving around well and not having any trouble with the wrist or neck injuries that have slowed him this season.

"He feels good, he's moving around real good. He's been taking extra batting practice every day," Nieto said. "At about 2:30 we go out and get him extra batting practice then he takes his regular batting practice. He's right on schedule."

It was reported Thursday that Morneau is especially eager to finish up his rehab assignment and return to the big leagues. The Twins had originally planned on his return to come Monday at Detroit, the site of his last big-league game.

"He's chomping at the bit to get back there," Nieto said. "Physically he looks great and he says he feels great. His timing at the plate is really good. He's having good at-bats, took a bases-loaded walk. ... He's up to par and he's raring to go."

The Twins are 9 1/2 games out of first place and a long shot to qualify for the playoffs. The only chance for them is that Morneau and Joe Mauer both get hot and hit like they did during their American League MVP seasons.

Newcomers impress

We have heard a lot of talk about Vikings first-round draft choice Christian Ponder and second-round pick Kyle Randolph. While the quarterback Ponder and tight end Randolph have done well, coach Leslie Frazier has been impressed with a number of other draft choices, including fourth-round defensive lineman Christian Ballard, a 6-4, 283-pounder from Iowa.

Frazier believes some of these draft choices could be starters before long. And the Vikings are a team that, if they are going to contend, needs to come up with successful finds in their draft choices and their free-agent signings.

"I think Ballard is going to be a very good player in short time," Frazier said. "Then we have Brandon Burton [a 6-1, 190-pound, fifth-round defensive back from Utah], who has stepped up and is making some plays.

"Then we have some others like linebacker Ross Homan [sixth round from Ohio State], who we like some of things he is doing. And we are keeping an eye on offensive lineman DeMarcus Love [sixth round from Arkansas].

Big victory

Senior wide receiver Da'Jon McKnight said the Gophers' victories against Illinois and Iowa to end last season were big, adding: "We're going to go in and make sure that we have that momentum against USC to get a win."

McKnight said he didn't care what the predictions are about the Gophers finishing last in the Big Ten. "I don't care what they think. I don't really care," McKnight said.

McKnight had 48 catches for 750 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, all Gophers highs. He had been bothered by a knee injury but said he should be ready for the season. That's good, because the Gophers need him to be healthy.

Tough luck for Twins

The Twins are certainly running into trouble with their highly touted minor league pitchers.

Kyle Gibson, their 2009 first-round draft choice, has some problems with his right elbow, and he will head to Fort Myers, Fla., this week to begin rehab. The Twins are going to try to avoid Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery for now with Gibson, who was 3-8 with a 4.81 ERA at Class AAA Rochester.

Then there's 2010 first-round choice Alex Wimmers, who was the Big Ten Pitcher of the Year two years running at Ohio State. He didn't retire anyone in his season debut for Class A Fort Myers in April, walking six, and was immediately put on the shelf by the Twins. Wimmers returned to the Fort Myers staff July 17 and has shown signs of improvement, striking out 23 batters and walking eight over 17 innings in six games. Both pitchers got over $1 million to sign and originally were expected to make quick progress to the major leagues. But now both are question marks.

Jottings

• Famous novelist Vince Flynn, who played football at St. Thomas, and baseball Hall of Famer George Brett, the Royals great now a team vice president, are good friends. So last fall, Flynn, Brett and Brett's son Jackson went to a St. Thomas-St. John's football game at Collegeville. The following Monday, Jackson visited St. Thomas and loved what he saw of the school, so he will be a member of the Tommies football team this fall as a freshman.

• Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor likes the talent on his team. "We certainly have the material," he said. "We have a lot of young guys. I think [Ricky] Rubio and [Derrick] Williams coming in will only add to that. It's just a matter of finding about seven or eight guys on the team that can all play together. I think we've got the individuals, I think we have to get the team concept. We have to be real thoughtful in the coach that we select."

• Gophers men's basketball forward Trevor Mbakwe had nine points and eight rebounds in 17 minutes in the United States World University Games team's 88-61 exhibition victory over Chinese pro team New Century on Thursday. He went 4-for-4 from the floor and 1-for-1 at the foul line.

• Former Twins great Gary Gaetti was named manager of the Sugar Land Skeeters, a expansion team in Texas for the independent Atlantic League. Gaetti lives in Houston, about 30 minutes northeast of Sugar Land.

• Through three games of the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in Slovakia with the United States under-18 team, Louie Nanne, grandson of hockey legend Lou Nanne, has one goal and one assist. He scored his goal in a 6-5 victory over Slovakia on Wednesday. The team will play in the fifth-place game Friday.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. • shartman@startribune.com