PHOENIX -- One of the folk heroes of the Mets' early season is ready to return. Mike Baxter, who distinguished (and injured) himself making a leaping catch against the left-field wall to preserve Johan Santana's no-hitter, will be activated prior to Monday's game against the Giants. The Mets plan to option outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis to Triple-A Buffalo to clear roster space.

Baxter had little left to prove on his Minor League rehab assignment, batting .327 in 13 games over three levels while recently ramping up his outfield play. But he will not necessarily assume a significant role upon his return. Wary of the slow starts that Josh Thole and Jason Bay experienced upon returning after rehab assignments earlier this year, Mets manager Terry Collins said he will likely ease Baxter back into regular playing time.

"That's the $64,000 question," Collins said. "We brought Josh Thole up, he got off to a rough start. We brought Jason Bay back, he's off to a rough start. How many times do you jump on the same merry-go-round?"

That said, if Baxter produces, he could ultimately cut into Bay's playing time. The Mets could even establish a left-field platoon to accommodate Baxter, who hit .323 in 65 games prior to his injury. Eight of those hits came in 18 at-bats as a pinch-hitter, making Baxter a valuable left-handed bat off the bench.

A Queens native, Baxter has been on the disabled list since June 2, the day after he displaced his right collarbone against the outfield wall.

Nieuwenhuis, who did not play Sunday and is batting .123 since June 16, is the clear choice for a demotion. The rookie outfielder had lost most of his playing time to Jordany Valdespin anyway, and now will have an opportunity to right himself at Buffalo.

"Right now, I'm not contributing," Nieuwenhuis said. "Hopefully I'll get it going down in Buffalo and be back soon."

Francisco may still return this week

PHOENIX -- Closer Frank Francisco's rehab setback was concerning for the Mets, to be certain, but not necessarily debilitating. A day after scratching himself from a Minor League outing with soreness in his left side, Francisco threw a scoreless inning for Double-A Binghamton on Sunday, allowing one hit and throwing nine of his 12 pitches for strikes.

With that stat line on his ledger, Francisco could join the Mets as soon as this week in San Francisco. Though not as likely as it once was, that scenario is still possible because manager Terry Collins said he does not need to see Francisco pitch in back-to-back games before activating him.

On the disabled list since June 23 with a strained left oblique, Francisco has experienced two setbacks due to pain in his left side and a third because of trouble with his knee.

In Francisco's absence, Bobby Parnell has saved three games in five chances with a 2.31 ERA, striking out more than a batter per inning. But Francisco was one of the club's best relievers prior to his injury, converting 10 of his last 11 save opportunities with a 1.76 ERA. Collins said that if the Mets did not believe Francisco would return soon, they might have more aggressively explored trades for a reliever prior to Tuesday's Trade Deadline.

Instead, Collins said, general manager Sandy Alderson is unlikely to do anything significant.

"Because of what he said today," Collins said of Francisco, "I think he'll be back shortly."