BALTIMORE – Sonny Gray has had a bit of a delicate balance to keep since going on the injured list 2 ½ weeks ago with a hamstring strain.

The veteran was the headliner of the Twins starters coming into this season, a leader who has encouraged the group to watch and learn from one another's bullpen sessions. But he made it only two starts into the season before the injury took him off the field. So he found himself stepping back from the limelight while the rotation went on to post the third-best ERA in baseball at 2.63 heading into Wednesday's game in Baltimore.

But that doesn't mean the 32-year-old has faded away entirely. He's been with the team for the duration of his rehab, including on the current road trip to Florida and Maryland. He's often in the clubhouse, playing cards or chatting with teammates. He has only briefly stepped away for a Sunday rehab start with Fort Myers, and he will for another with Class AAA St. Paul on Saturday afternoon.

"I just continue to get my work in but also not be, or be as little or small, of a distraction as possible," Gray said. "… Just still help out when I can here and there and just still feel like as much part of the team as you can without actually going out there and contributing on the field yet. But I am itching to do that, and it'll come soon enough."

In his Class A start, Gray pitched three innings with one hit and five strikeouts. He left feeling great and said Saturday's start with the Saints is more for stretching-out purposes than it is injury testing. He said in the first inning Sunday, the hamstring was still on his mind. But by the second and third, it had left his brain entirely because he didn't feel any pain or tightness.

Gray said if all goes well in St. Paul this weekend, he could slot back into the starting rotation soon after that.

"It's the right decision to now go have a normal week, throw a bullpen and go make just a start and not necessarily build up in the big leagues," Gray said. "And if you look at, that's my third game, so now just have a normal week, get to St. Paul on Saturday, and it's just kind of like, 'Hey, go up there and just pitch. Just have a game where then you don't have to worry about this or that.'"

Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said he originally left Thursday's start in Baltimore open, waiting to see how Gray was lining up. He ended up slotting Chris Archer in for Thursday, his usual day. Josh Winder will have a second start as well, with Gray and Bailey Ober still on the IL. But once Gray returns, there will be a possibility of a six-man rotation, which the Twins used for a bit at the start of the year.

"When you do run the six-man, you run a player shorter in the bullpen, and there's no way really around that, so it probably depends on the state of our bullpen when that time comes as to what we do," Baldelli said. "Because if you're short in the bullpen, having just another starter lined up at all times but not pitching on a given day, it can present some challenges."

Kepler, Buxton rested

Wednesday's starting lineup lacked two usual suspects in right fielder Max Kepler and center fielder Byron Buxton. Kepler left in the middle of Tuesday's game with a non-COVID illness, and Baldelli told him to come to the park late Wednesday so he could have extra down time.

Buxton had a planned off day, a luxury he's had a fair amount of since the season began. He already has dealt with minor wrist and knee injuries, and injuries as a whole have derailed many of his major league seasons.

"You want 162 games, you want 700 plate appearances and all that, but what we want is for him to play at his best for the entire season and give us a chance to win a World Series. That's our goal here," Baldelli said. "What goes on this week may influence what goes on at the end of the year, but the most important thing is keeping him going."

Baldelli said Buxton is competitive and wants to play every game, but he also understands the need to manage his playing time with the future in mind.

In the pair's stead, Gilberto Celestino started in center field while Trevor Larnach did the same in right field.

Sano's surgery

First baseman Miguel Sano will have an operation Thursday morning in New York to repair the torn meniscus in his left knee. Sano suffered the injury while celebrating a walkoff victory over Detroit last week. He sat out three games before trying to play this past Saturday in Tampa Bay. But he left that outing early with increased pain, which necessitated the minimally invasive procedure.

The Twins have not yet outlined a timeline for Sano's recovery and potential return. Jose Miranda and Luis Arraez have been playing his position in his absence.