Votto’s return quietly gives Reds reason to be excited

Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto (19) singles during the eighth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Great American Ball Park. The Reds won 5-2.

Frank Victores/Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

CINCINNATI — Nearly an hour had passed since Todd Frazier had let loose on a pitch from Pittsburgh left-hander Tony Watson, driving a sinker that didn’t sink enough 442 feet into the left field upper deck seats at Great American Ball Park for a 3-run home run that proved to be the difference in a 5-2 win for the Reds on Opening Day.

Frazier’s home run and the pitching of Johnny Cueto were the headlines of this game. A GABP regular-season record crowd of 43,633 left the yard frenzied and ecstatic.

Joey Votto was on first base when Frazier hit his home run. He had singled off Watson ahead of Frazier, moving Billy Hamilton to second base with one out. It was Votto’s second hit in four at-bats in the game. It wasn’t the kind of at-bat that produces headlines. It was the kind of at-bat that provides proof for anyone wondering whether or not Votto is healthy and ready for this season.

Nearly an hour had passed and Votto still wasn’t at his locker in the clubhouse. His clothes and belongings were still there.

Votto was doing a post-game workout routine. By the time he walked out into the clubhouse and was headed to the showers, I decided there was nothing a few minutes of discussion with Votto could add to this scene that it didn’t already paint for itself.

The Joey Votto who played Monday resembled little of the player who played in just 62 games last season. Votto’s last game last season was on July 5. He went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts against Milwaukee’s Matt Garza. He was dogged by questions of his health all offseason, specifically the status of the distal quad in his left knee. He told reporters at Redsfest in December he was on track to be ready for spring training without going into much more detail. He spent the offseason in Toronto working out and the reports the Reds got, the media was told, were always favorable. It’s tough, though, to just take these situations without skepticism.

If seeing is believing, well believe it.

Monday was a vintage version of Votto.

"When he’s going right, he checks those swings, he holds them back, he sees pitches," said Frazier, "and when he’s hitting the ball to left field we’ve got a great opportunity."

That was Votto in the eighth inning. He fell behind in the count against Watson with a foul ball and a called strike only to fight back and force the count full, including successfully checking his swing on a 2-2 pitch. Votto had faced Watson 16 previous times in their careers. He had three hits, three walks and three strikeouts in those plate appearances.

This time he took the 3-2 pitch to left field and dropped it in front of Starling Marte, setting up Frazier’s big moment.

Votto hit No. 2 Monday. It’s a spot in the lineup manager Bryan Price believes suits Votto well.

"He’s a high on-base, extra-base hit guy setting the table for guys like Todd and Devin (Mesoraco) and Marlon (Byrd) and Jay (Bruce)," said Price before the game.

He twice set the table on Monday. Votto grounded out to second base his first time up but singled to center field in the third inning, sending Hamilton first-to-third. Cueto had led off the inning with a walk but Hamilton replaced him on the base path on a fielder’s choice groundout. That was an important trade because Cueto wasn’t going to reach third base on Votto’s single. Hamilton scored the first run of the game on a balk by Pittsburgh starter Francisco Liriano.

This was one game out of 162 but how Votto looked and played Monday was exactly what the Reds will need from him this season. He’s healthy and he’s motivated.

"For him to come into spring ready like he was, he’s a new Joey to me," said Hamilton. "I watch him and the enthusiasm he has and the willing to win that he has showed in the spring. It’s good to have him back out there. He’s swinging the bat very well, which is just doing what Joey Votto does. I’m excited for him."

It’s reason for the Reds to be excited.