CINCINNATI — Ryan Ludwick’s dark hair is beginning to grow over his ears and it is creeping down his neck. He keeps it trimmed and neat and it isn’t as short as he likes it.
“I hate it,” he says.
So why not cut it?
“Because I’m hitting so good,” he explained. “Ryan Hanigan dared me to grow my hair out during spring training and I did it.”
And now Hanigan has the Samson Syndrome, fearing to cut his hair because it might sap his batting average.
When Joey Votto, the team’s best hitter, the team’s best run producer, wrecked his knee and lapsed onto the disabled list, doom was predicted for the Cincinnati Reds. Where would the hits, doubles, homers and RBIs come from?
Enter left field Ryan Ludwick, he with the thick and full head of hair.
The Reds have spliced together a 27-11 record without Votto and Ludwick has been one of many to step up his game, probably the guy who has stepped the highest.
On Sunday, facing his old St. Louis Cardinals teammates and the team closest to the first place Reds, Ludwick drove in one of his team’s two runs during an 8-2 loss that cut their National League Central division lead to six games.
Since the All-Star break, just after Votto went down, Ludwick has hit 13 homers, fourth most in the majors, and driven in 39 runs, third most in the majors over that span.
After a frosty April during which he hit below .200, Ludwick has lifted his average to .277 with 25 home runs and 70 RBIs.
Perhaps most importantly, manager Dusty Baker has slipped him into the clean-up spot, moving Brandon Phillips from clean-up to Votto’s No. 3 spot.
So what happens when Votto comes back, probably in Houston Saturday?
“Ludwick will continue to play a major part in our lineup,” Baker said warily and with a wink.
What he means is that Ludwick will remain the clean-up hitter, providing protection for Votto when he is back in the third spot. Phillips? He’ll move to leadoff, where he batted most of last season, and current leadoff hitter Zack Cozart will drop to second.
“He has elevated his game the last couple of months, especially with driving in runs,” said Baker. “And that’s what it is all about. Run production. He has been there before and certainly knows how to do it and certainly wants it.”
Doing it before was in 2008 when he was with the Cardinals — .299, 37 homers, 113 RBIs. Since then, though, he has been in baseball hibernation, resurfacing this season with the Reds.
“He had a couple of years where he wasn’t the real Ludwick, for whatever reason,” Baker said. “I was trying to give guys a chance to take the job in left field, mostly between Ludwick and Chris Heisey. I said, ‘OK, men, I’m playing you both.’ That’s a hard thing to do, especiallyl when you don’t know a player. I knew more about Heisey than I knew about Ludwick.
“Then Ludwick got hot and I made a decision to play Ludwick,” Baker added. “Heisey is better suited for us as a fourth outfielder because he can play all three outfield positions. Ludwick’s value is being an every day left fielder, or at least five days a week.”
Baker would admit, “I have a plan when Votto comes back to shift things around to maximize our offense. We don’t score a whole bunch of runs, but we’ve only been shut out twice. If you ain’t betting shut out, you have a chance.”
Baker wouldn’t go so far as to say Ludwick will remain his clean-up hitter, but the hint was deep when he said, “Ludwick factors into it very prominently.” And Baker cares not if his clean-up hitter needs a haircut.