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Calm, cool Volquez overcame a lot for Game 1

Calm, cool Volquez overcame a lot for Game 1

PHILADELPHIA -- This won't be the first DS in which Edinson Volquez will have pitched. But it might be the less stressful one.

The young Cincinnati right-hander has pitched Dominican Series games in Santiago and Licey. After that, a National League Division Series game in Philadelphia might be a relaxing night in the park -- even if that is Citizens Bank Park, where the series kicks off Wednesday at 5:07 p.m. ET on TBS.

That background had much to do with Reds manager Dusty Baker's choice to have Volquez start Cincinnati's first playoff game in 15 years, against the two-time NL champion Phillies and their rabid fans.

Tale of the Tape: Game 1
2010 Regular Season
Overall: 12 GS, 4-3, 4.31 ERA, 35 BB, 67 K.
Overall: 33 GS, 21-10, 2.44 ERA, 30 BB, 219 K.
Key stat: Averaging 9.6 K's per nine IP.
Key stat: Nine complete games, four shutouts.
At CITIZENS BANK PARK
2010: N/A. Career: 5 GS, 4-0, 1.56 ERA.
2010: 18 GS, 12-5, 2.21. Career: 18 GS, 12-5, 2.21.
Against this opponent
2010: N/A. Career: 2 GS, 2-0, 0.73.
2010: 2 GS, 0-1 2.56. Career: 4 GS, 1-1 2.84.
Loves to face: Shane Victorino, 0-for-5.
Hates to face: Raul Ibanez, 3-for-9.
Loves to face: Drew Stubbs, 1-for-6.
Hates to face: Ramon Hernandez, 13-for-37.
Game breakdown
Why he'll win: Had 1.95 ERA in September
Why he'll win: Coming off complete-game two-hitter
Pitcher beware: Young gun who has never been here before
Pitcher beware: Prior to last game, had given up three or more runs in past six starts
Bottom line: Electric arm
Bottom line: Ace of aces

"Having pitched some championship games in Winter Ball and in the Dominican, he shouldn't be affected by the pressure," Baker said. "Anybody's who's been there knows there is more pressure there than there is here.

"Plus, Edinson is very calm, cool. He's a good-time Charlie."

And Charlie will be looking to have a good time on the most important night of a career interrupted by major surgery and detoured by suspension for being in violation of Major League Baseball's Drug Policy.

Getting the ball on Wednesday will serve as another testimonial to the miracle elbow operation known as Tommy John surgery -- and to Volquez's recuperative powers. He had that procedure a mere 14 months ago.

"It's an honor for me," Volquez said. "For me, it's big, because I was out for one year and came back from Tommy John [surgery]. This is the first game of the playoffs. It's big-time."

Pitchers returning from the ulnar collateral ligament replacement procedure often provide better results in their second season back. The Reds and Volquez don't have the luxury of that timetable.

Not with the club's first postseason appearance in 15 years now upon them.

Volquez's stuff doesn't play favorites: It's as dirty to left-handed hitters as it is to righties.

"Besides the fact he's pitching as well as anybody," Baker said, "of all the candidates available, he gets out left-handed hitters better than anybody else we have."

The Phillies have Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Raul Ibanez lurking in the middle of their lineup. Left-handed hitters, all. Volquez has allowed that trio five hits, all singles, in 19 at-bats while ringing them up on seven strikeouts, but that doesn't mean too much since he has not pitched against Philadelphia since early in the 2008 season. What is more meaningful is that across his career, left-handers have hit Volquez at the same rate (.256) as right-handers, and for far less power.

"I've been working hard to be in the playoffs," said Volquez, who had the surgery on Aug. 3, 2009. "Everybody on the team has done the same thing. Those guys have been together the whole year, and I was able to get back for the second half of the season. I just did my best to help the team win."

Volquez could be the biggest X-factor the Reds have heading into October. While he is making a comeback from a major surgery, his body doesn't have many innings logged this season, while other pitchers are seeking their second and third winds.

Much of the speculation was that Volquez could get a Game 2 or Game 3 assignment, and that 17-game winner and playoff-experienced veteran Bronson Arroyo would get the opener. On Saturday, Volquez expressed surprise about being picked to start Game 1.

"[Johnny] Cueto has been pitching the whole year and has done good. Bronson Arroyo, too, and [Travis] Wood and Homer Bailey," Volquez said. "I will do my best. We're trying to win the first game because it's very important."

Baker's decision to go with Volquez was also predicated on having a power arm that can match up with Phillies Game 1 starter Roy Halladay.

"It's been pretty apparent that when he throws the way he has lately, his stuff is just electric," said Reds center fielder Drew Stubbs. "When he's got that changeup going and a mid-90s fastball and the breaking ball, he is as tough as there is. That's what we're expecting out of him for the first game of the series. If he does what we know he can do, he should have us in a good position."

Volquez returned to the Reds after the All-Star break, and in the 12 starts since, he has demonstrated he's capable of being the same kind of pitcher who won 17 games and made the All-Star team during his breakout 2008 season.

"I think what he's doing this year is amazing," said Reds catcher Ramon Hernandez. "I don't remember the last time a pitcher came back in the middle of a season after Tommy John surgery and pitched really good, especially from a starting spot. It's not that easy. You could not ask him for more."

Volquez finished the regular season with a 4-3 record and a 4.31 ERA with 35 walks and 67 strikeouts over 62 2/3 innings.

There were times, such as his one-run, nine-strikeout season debut vs. Colorado, that his stuff was spectacular. In his second start, he surrendered six runs to the Nationals, followed by three straight outings where he allowed one run. Then there were two starts in late August where he got clobbered for 10 runs over a total of 5 1/3 innings. In other words, it was a roller-coaster ride as he struggled to command his pitches after a year away.

The Reds, amid a tense pennant race with the Cardinals, could not afford Volquez's inconsistencies. He was sent to Class A Dayton for two starts in September to fine-tune his mechanics while away from the heat of a contending team.

"There was a real strong feeling that Volky was tipping his pitches when his hands were set higher," Reds pitching coach Bryan Price said. "We dropped his hands down and it helped in two ways: He's not tipping pitches, No. 1. No. 2, it allows his timing to get his hands in the throwing position.

"It affects his timing in a positive way. When he was scattered with his command, his arm wasn't ready to throw the ball when it needed to be. He couldn't stay on top of the ball."

In four starts since his recall from Dayton, Volquez was 1-1 with a 1.95 ERA. He had eight walks and 31 strikeouts. His velocity regularly reached the 95-96-mph range.

Volquez's best start of the season was two outings ago, on Sept. 21 at Milwaukee. He tied a career high with eight innings pitched, allowing one run, four hits and four walks with six strikeouts. One pleasant surprise was 16 ground-ball outs, including four double plays.

"I think his stuff is better," Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun said after that game. "He was throwing hard and his changeup was just as good as ever."

"There's no question that was a shutdown game," Price said. "His command was low in the strike zone. He had movement on the fastball and changeup. It encouraged a lot of ground balls in that game. It would be nice to see that as a trend."

Volquez's final regular-season start came Sept. 28 when he pitched six innings for a no-decision in the Reds' 4-3 victory. Although not as consistently effective as he was vs. the Brewers, he allowed two second-inning runs, walked one and struck out eight.

A sharp Volquez is very much the weapon the Reds want to match up with some of the stellar starting pitching they are likely to encounter in the postseason.

"It's what we hoped for when he got called back up," Baker said. "He had to go backwards in order to come forward, which happens, too. He's strong. He's really strong."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word and follow him on Twitter@m_sheldon. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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