Joey Votto returns to the Cincinnati lineup and the Reds lose ..."/> Joey Votto returns to the Cincinnati lineup and the Reds lose ..."/>

Joey Votto As Good As New

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Joey Votto returns to the Cincinnati lineup and the Reds lose two in a row. Go figure. But don’t be fooled. Having Votto back and playing regularly for the first time since mid-July makes the Reds a genuine World Series contender, whether manager Dusty Baker will say so or not. And he won’t. Baker views such early talk of games yet-to-be-qualified for as the equivalent of walking under a ladder or wearing No. 13.

So I’ll say it for him. The Reds will win the National League pennant and be the league’s representative in the World Series. They could win it all, which is the only thing Baker hasn’t accomplished as a manager after stints with the San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs. But who the Reds play in the last set of games will make a difference. For now, just getting there is the priority.

Until Wednesday, Votto, the NL Most Valuable Player of 2010, missed 48 games. With Votto, the team’s best player, recuperating from knee surgery, the Reds went 32-16. That was the best that any team played between July 16 and Sept. 3. A lot of people, me included, said Uh, oh, when Votto went down. Not to worry. Outfielder Ryan Ludwick caught on fire and fill-in Todd Frazier positioned himself for consideration as rookie of the year. Amazing to say that the Reds did not miss Votto at all.

Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto is off the disabled list and back in the lineup as his team makes its move towards a pennant. Credit: Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE

That’s a Votto who was hitting .342 with 49 RBIs and 14 homers when he got hurt. The Reds made do, not only with Frazier and Ludwick playing at an All-Star clip, but with everyone in the lineup taking turns making big plays in the field or at-bat. Second baseman Brandon Phillips, who had been coming on strong before Votto was injured, increased his contributions, too.

Above all, the Reds got superb pitching. The starters were sharper. Like the others who picked up their game, Bronson Arroyo picked a good time to eliminate mistakes and pitch his best ball of the summer. Johnny Cueto kept up his Cy Young Award-like pace. Mat Latos has gotten better and better as the season went along.

And then there is closer Aroldis Chapman, who at times has bordered on the unbelievable. Groomed in the off-season to become a starter, Chapman took on his role after free-agent acquisition Ryan Madson went down for the year with injury. After 24 appearances, Chapman had a 0.00 earned run average. He got hit hard in a couple of games in June and then went 27 more appearances without a blown save until Friday night.

Chapman, who now has 35 saves, got shoved around pretty well in a loss to, of all people, the Houston Astros. That just shows when your time is up, your time is up. So in one night Chapman’s earned run average ballooned from 1.23 to 1.61. One game is one game so it isn’t as if anyone at the Great American Ball Park was panicking over this lapse by Mr. 100 mph. Being human, he was eventually going to have another off night before 2013.

Votto has been back for two games thus far and he hasn’t had an off night yet. In his return game against the Phillies, Votto got two hits and walked. Against the Astros he got one hit and walked three times. Houston seemed scared of the 6-foot-3, 220-pound slugger. Baker has said he wants to nurse Votto along a little bit, not playing him everyday. Votto said he’s ready to go full blast and not to baby him.

Baker wants to make sure Votto is clicking on all cylinders come playoff time. With an eight-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Cetnral Division after Friday’s games he can afford to be patient. The Reds are on the brink of recording their best season since 1990, the last time the franchise won the World Series.