By Michael Rushton, MLB Contributor - Archive - Email
Votto's return makes Reds strong contenders
Joey Votto is just one of the many key pieces that the
Reds have that make them serious contenders in the NL.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Not many teams with an already sizeable lead atop their division get to add a former MVP winner in September, but that is exactly what the Cincinnati Reds have done.

Owners of an 8 1/2-game lead for first place in the NL Central heading into Friday, the Reds welcomed back Joey Votto on Wednesday for the first time since July 15 because of a left knee injury that required a pair of surgeries. Being able to thrust the slugging first baseman right into the lineup puts the club in great position to win its second division title in three seasons.

Not that the Reds were hurting without him.

Cincinnati went an impressive 32-16 from July 16-Sept. 3, the best record in baseball over that time. The Reds played 16 games over .500 without Votto, even after learning during his absence that the left-handed slugger needed the second short surgery on his knee to have a floating piece of cartilage removed.

Votto suffered his injury while sliding during a game on June 29, but continued for a brief time before getting shut down. He was activated from the disabled list on Sept. 4 and played in his first game the following day. Though the Reds lost a 6-2 contest to the Philadelphia Phillies, Votto had a pair of hits in three at-bats and also drew a walk.

"I think it went better than expected. I was very happy to be back in the lineup and playing again," said Votto. who hit .342 with 14 homers and 49 RBI in 86 games before getting hurt.

Wednesday was the perfect day to bring Votto back given that Cincinnati had an off day on Thursday. Cincinnati and manager Dusty Baker don't plan on playing Votto every day in an attempt to keep him healthy for the playoffs.

Votto insisted after Wednesday's game that he could have played on Thursday, and Baker added that his first baseman felt physically fine after his return.

"I think those rehab games really helped him and he said he felt fine. I asked him in the seventh, because I was thinking of taking him out at that point and he said he was feeling OK," Baker noted.

Cincinnati put itself in a great position with Votto by playing as well as it did in his absence. The Reds likely wouldn't have been able to be as cautious with the 2010 NL MVP if their lead atop the division was much smaller -- or non-existent.

Instead, the Reds can pick their spots with Votto, get him into form before the playoffs and hope he can help carry them to the World Series.

Cincinnati, though, will need to keep playing like it did during Votto's injury and not cede all production to the returning slugger. Outfielder Jay Bruce and second baseman Brandon Phillips are two offensive threats who must stay hot.

Bruce has done just that, homering in four straight games and driving in nine runs during that time. He leads Cincinnati with 32 homers and 93 RBI and will remain in the meat of the order.

"We're going to keep (Bruce) where he is and hopefully other guys pick it up," Baker said.

Phillips, meanwhile, will have to adjust from hitting third in the lineup in place of Votto after Baker moved him back to the leadoff spot on Wednesday.

Votto is just one of the many key pieces that the Reds have that make them serious contenders in the NL. The offense is very capable of driving in runs, the staff has three very reliable starters and fireballer Aroldis Chapman has emerged as a dominant closer in his first crack at the job.

The 24-year-old Cuban is 5-4 with a 1.23 ERA in 62 appearances, converting 35- of-39 save chances. That includes a franchise-record 27 opportunities in a row since his last blown save on June 24.

Chapman and staff ace Johnny Cueto are in the mix for NL Cy Young honors, while starters Mat Latos and Bronson Arroyo serve as excellent compliments to Cueto.

Some would argue that a lack of playoff experience could hurt Cueto and Latos, who has never pitched in the postseason, but those worries could be overstated. After all, Cueto pitched very well in his playoff debut in Game 3 of the NLDS versus the Phillies, taking a hard-luck 2-0 loss, and Arroyo has plenty of knowledge to share, having pitched before in the World Series.

A lack of competition shouldn't hurt the Reds, either. Yes, the NL Central isn't the strongest division in baseball, but that didn't stop the wild card- winning St. Louis Cardinals from winning it all a season ago.

The recipe is there for the Reds. Like a good chef, they need to just mix it all together.

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