Small sample but strong results for Votto in two-hole

CINCINNATI — It is a small sampling, about the same portion as the cheese you get as a grocery store free sample. Just a taste.

It is only two games, but the one-two punch of Billy-Joey is working exactly the way Cincinnati Reds manager Bryan Price dreamed it would work during his offseason cat naps.

His plan was to remove first baseman Joey Votto from his familiar No. 3 spot in the batting order and push him up to second in the order.

Why? Votto at the baseball plate is as discerning about the pitches he sees as a master chef is at the dinner table plate. Votto doesn’t like every pitch he sees and, in fact, likes very few. It is almost as if he is bypassing the main course and waiting for dessert.

Every year, while batting third, Votto either led the league in on-base percentage or was in the top two or three. That’s because if the pitcher wants to walk him, Votto tosses away his bat and says, "Thank you very much," on his way to first base.

After all, scoring runs in baseball is all about getting on base first.

And there is a bonus with Votto batting second. Because he takes so many pitches, if he is batting second, behind the human speeding bullet, Billy Hamilton, Votto’s electronic eye gives Hamilton some pitches on which to steal bases.

Is it working? Did the Reds start the season 2-and-0 with Hamilton and Votto in the middle of everything?

During Wednesday’s 11-inning victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates, Hamilton was on base four times and stole three bases. He stole second early in the game and Votto drove him home with a single. And in the 11th inning, Hamilton was on base when Votto’s single scored Zack Cozart from second to end the game, a 5-4 Reds victory.

On Opening Day Monday, the score was tied, 2-2, in the eighth inning. Hamilton singled and Votto followed with a single. Hamilton stole third but that one wasn’t needed because Todd Frazier crushed a three-run home run, the runs needed for a 5-2 victory.

"That’s what we need," said Votto. "We need Hamilton to get on base because he definitely sets everything in motion. He disrupts all the patterns a pitcher has. That’s exactly what we expect out of him."

Of his move from third to second in the order, Votto said, "I don’t care where I hit, it doesn’t matter." Then he flashed a smile and said, "Well, it might bother me to hit seventh or eighth."

In the first two games, Votto is hitting .400 (4 for 10), four singles, and has two RBI. Hamilton is hitting .444 (4 for 9) with four stolen bases and three runs scored.

Price, Votto and everybody wearing a Cincinnati uniform, knows the importance of Hamilton getting on base to kick-start an offense that was 28th in the majors last year in runs scored.

"A lot of good things happen when Billy is on base four times in a game like (Wednesday)," said Price. "It just sets a tone for us. It does put pitchers on the defensive, having to concern themselves with the base runner as well as thinking about who is hitting behind him (Votto). He is just a real pain in the butt for anybody who has to pitch with Billy on base."

Due to injuries, Votto played only 63 games last season and spent the winter rehabbing his legs and there was concern over his stability. He displayed all spring that he is healthy and in the early going he has shown that he is a force.

Shortstop Zack Cozart was on second base in the 11th inning when Votto delivered the game-ending hit and what he said afterward shows the faith this team has in Votto.

"We have all the confidence in the world in Joey Votto," said Cozart. "We almost expect him to get a hit in that situation because that’s how highly we think of him. I had a good feeling he would get a big hit for us. It seems like he always does."

And with Votto batting second, everybody on the team seconds the motion.