“It’s Joey Votto,” teammate Jonathan India stated plainly afterward. “What can you expect? He’s a legend.”
The home run heroics were cool and all, but the legend had more work to do. Down a run with the bases loaded in the bottom of the sixth, Votto arrived at the plate with the chance to give his team the lead. He watched one ball from reliever Jake Bird before roping another line-drive back up the middle for a two-run single.
Along with the homer and lineout earlier, Votto recorded three batted balls with at least 102 mph exit velocity in his first game back — something he did in just one game last season. His go-ahead single at 108.7 mph would’ve been his third-hardest hit ball of 2022. Votto wasn’t just back in a Reds uniform; he was back doing damage in a Reds uniform.
The lead seized by Votto’s single would ultimately hold for a 5-4 victory, the team’s ninth in a row, and catapult the club to the top of the division standings. As great as it was to have Votto around the team throughout his rehab process, it’s nothing like having him actually in the lineup while the club contends for a postseason bid.
“He’s felt and been a part of this the whole time, from the very first day of spring training,” manager David Bell said before the game. “But now it feels the way it’s supposed to. He’s a player with our team and he’s gonna make us better. It’s as simple as that.”
The Reds’ challenge moving forward will be to sustain this first-half success as the stakes continue to elevate. It feels like a distant memory because of last year’s dismal finish, but the 2021 club was in a very similar spot to this one in mid-June. That team was 37-36 through 73 games but remained in the mix for a wild-card spot into early September. Votto was healthy and especially spectacular in the second half, but the Reds ultimately fell short of the postseason.
This year’s club will need to continue to weather an ongoing storm of injuries on the mound, the latest of which landed ace Hunter Greene on the injured list with right hip pain as the corresponding move for Votto’s activation. The depth has already been severely tested, and as good as rookie lefty Andrew Abbott has looked thus far, he can start only every five days and probably won’t have a 0.00 ERA forever.
Still, Votto’s triumphant return was a loud reminder of how formidable the Reds could be on offense when everything is clicking. It took all of one game to remind the Great American Ball Park crowd what kind of hitter Votto alone is capable of being, but he’s joining an energized group of young players who are already finding serious success at the MLB level. The best version of this offense — one with Joseph Daniel Votto in the middle of it — can support a pitching staff that might need significant run support at times.
“This lineup got 10 times scarier,” a grinning India asserted after Monday’s victory.
There’s a long way to go, but the division is there for the taking. Perhaps, the Reds can ride this momentum all season and capture their first NL Central crown since that fantastic 2012 team. Whatever happens from here, Votto’s return is already another exciting chapter in a surprisingly successful campaign for Cincinnati — and one that few will forget any time soon.
“It couldn’t have been written any better,” catcher Tyler Stephenson said postgame. “And we’re happy that he’s back, that’s for sure.”
Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He has covered baseball for his entire adult life, most notably for MLB.com, DAZN and The Ringer. He’s a Mariners fan living in the Eastern Time Zone, which means he loves a good 10 p.m. first pitch. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.