MINNEAPOLIS -- With only 17 games remaining in the regular season and the Twins sitting just a game back of the White Sox in the American League Central, manager Ron Gardenhire knows that every game for his club is important.

That's why he's hesitant to keep catcher Joe Mauer out of the lineup.

Mauer, who is hitting .323, was back in the Twins' lineup as the designated hitter for Thursday afternoon's series finale against the Royals. Mauer had caught the night before, but he told Gardenhire that he felt good enough to play, and that was all the skipper needed to hear.

"If he says he's fine, he's fine," Gardenhire said. "I only go by him."

Gardenhire said he's tried to be cautious with Mauer's time behind the plate this season, attempting to give the catcher plenty of rest and making sure he isn't wearing down. But sitting Mauer hasn't always been easy with him leading the team in hitting. Mauer currently ranks second in the AL in innings caught this season (1,074 2/3) behind only Oakland's Kurt Suzuki (1,106).

"Everybody's not feeling too good right now, everyone's sore, but I didn't work all offseason to take days off here in September," Mauer said. "You just have to grind through it."

With the security of a third catcher on the roster now, thanks to September callups, Gardenhire said he's going to try to split Mauer's time a little more between catching and hitting in the DH spot.

"He'll get his days as a DH here on this road trip," Gardenhire said of the team's impending 10-game trip that begins on Friday. "We'll guard him on this next trip. Believe me, I gauge [his health] as close as anyone."