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The Reds Have Their Heart Back

Joey Votto acknowledges the crowd before his first at bat
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Joey Votto has suffered through a long and generally painful stretch as the face of the Reds franchise. Now in his 17th year in Cincinnati, the first baseman is 2-9 in his postseason career, and he hasn't played a playoff game in front of paying fans since losing a wild card game to the Pirates in 2013. No longer a star player, the 39-year-old is coming off his weakest campaign yet. Playing in only 91 games in 2022 before getting surgery on a torn left rotator cuff, Votto hit a paltry .205 with a .689 OPS and 11 homers. The Reds finished the year with 100 losses.

But on Monday night, Votto returned for his first game since August, and he did so for a Reds team that looks a lot different than the one he last saw. Jolted by the arrival of a super-prospect in Elly De La Cruz, and boosted by the work of kids like Spencer Steer (.837 OPS) and Andrew Abbott (no runs allowed in 17.2 career innings), the Reds are the hottest team in baseball and its most pleasant surprise. With nine straight wins floating them to the top of a muddy NL Central, Cincinnati has a real chance at making this year finally mean something.

As exhilarating as the recent gains have been—a nail-biter in extras against the Royals, a 9-7 win in 10 innings to sweep the Astros—they were missing something. Every upstart team needs a grizzled vet to captain the ship, and it didn't feel right that Reds baseball was fun again without Joey Votto. That changed when the team came home from their triumphant road trip to face the Rockies. Not only did Votto suit up, but he also played a gigantic role in yet another victory.

Votto got enthusiastic cheers from the crowd at every opportunity, from his first plate appearance to when he was substituted for a pinch runner after a walk in the eighth. But in between those moments he managed to make solid contact and deliver some crucial RBIs in the Reds' 5-4 win. A couple of dingers from the usually unremarkable Kevin Newman and Nick Senzel helped the Reds out to a 2-1 lead, and in the fifth, on the first pitch he saw, Votto hit such a powerful blast to deep right that the Cincy announcer had to use his full legal name in the call.

The Rocks took the lead back in the top of the sixth, but in their half the Reds loaded up the bases for that man again. Amid chants of his name, and after watching just one pitch go by, the elder statesman skipped a missile off the mound and into center field. These go-ahead runs were the last of the game.

Votto kept his emotions in check, as he usually does, both before and after this night that was as meaningful as a game in June can be. But it's obvious how important it is to him that he can keep contributing to a Reds team that's actually good.

"There's two things I care about: I love to play. I'd be disingenuous if I said I didn't love to play. I love to play," he said right before the return. "And there's nothing like playing winning baseball. I've been with one team since I've been 18 years old, and every time this team is in a position to compete for championships, it makes everything so much better.

"Things are changing for the best," he added. "It's a new generation. It's a new era of Reds baseball. And it's the players, the faces that you see on a nightly basis, that everyone should be excited about. And as a Reds fan, I'm excited about it too ... I love that I'm joining a team that is doing so well that I have to be a value-add."

Votto was thoughtful and gracious again even in the heat of the postgame.

Few people understand the grind of baseball like Joey Votto—game after game after game with no promises that there will be any reward at the end. For almost two decades, for the same fans in the same ballpark, Votto put up year after year of great or at least respectable hitting numbers, all without ever even getting to the NLCS. Last year felt like rock bottom—Cincinnati's worst season since 1982, and what seemed like the breakdown of his aging body. But now? It's almost like a fresh start for both Votto and the Reds. It's a long season, and Votto's been around long enough to know there will be cold slumps ahead. But this is far better than coming back to another loser.

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