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Carlos Beltran could return this week

NEW YORK -- In the space of three weeks, Carlos Beltran has gone from possibly headed to the operating room to definitely heading back to the New York Yankees' lineup this week, perhaps as soon as Thursday's game against the Oakland Athletics.

Manager Joe Girardi said Wednesday that Beltran, who went 1-for-5 in an extended spring training game earlier in the day, was en route to New York and "could possibly be in the lineup tomorrow."

A few moments later, Girardi strengthened his prediction, saying that as long as Beltran felt OK to play on Thursday morning, he would be in the lineup as the designated hitter for the finale of the Yankees' three-game series against the A's on Thursday afternoon.

"That's a pretty safe bet," Girardi said.

Beltran went on the disabled list on May 15, retroactive to May 13, after reporting sharp pain in his right elbow while hitting. An MRI revealed the presence of an old bone spur, and Girardi later told ESPNNewYork.com there was a non-displaced crack in the elbow as well.

At the time the injury first flared up, Beltran was pessimistic about his prospects for avoiding in-season surgery, and even more so when a cortisone injection failed to provide significant relief.

But after a second shot was administered, Beltran began to see improvement, and after a batting practice session last week expressed hope he might be able to avoid surgery.

Beltran was sent to the Yankees' minor league complex in Tampa, where he played in three games, the final one on Wednesday, in which he singled and flied out to the fence twice in a game against Toronto Blue Jays farmhands.

Girardi, who has been eager to get the switch-hitting Beltran's bat back into his offensively-challenged lineup, said the 37-year-old outfielder would be limited to DH duty at first.

"That's to try to limit the chances that the elbow acts back up," Girardi said. "Our first goal is to get him back as a hitter."

Currently, the Yankees -- who have scored a total of 10 runs in their last five games, and lost four of them -- rank in the lower half of the American League in several offensive categories, including runs scored (12th, 234) home runs (9th, 49), slugging percentage (10th, .386) and OPS (10th, .703).

Beltran is hitting .234 with five home runs and 15 RBIs.