"For me, it's something big," Volquez said. "A guy like Mario Soto and [Aaron] Harang did it before. It's a great opportunity to be out there on the first day."
Harang, the club's former ace who departed as a free agent, took the ball for the past five Reds Opening Days. Soto, a Volquez mentor now in the team's front office, did it six times for Cincinnati during the 1980s.
The job now belongs to Volquez.
Reds manager Dusty Baker and pitching coach Bryan Price came to the decision early in camp almost by process of elimination.
"You name who you think can handle it the best," Baker said. "Is Homer [Bailey] ready for the No. 1? Is [Travis] Wood ready for No. 1? Is [Mike] Leake ready for No. 1? [Johnny] Cueto just signed a four-year contract, and what's he, 23 years old? He's already got enough pressure on him. I'm trying to relieve any pressure from him thinking he has to prove he's worth the money. There's nobody looser and [whom] I think can handle the situation better than Volquez. Not much bothers him. At least he doesn't show it bothers him."
Volquez, 27, is the formal ace, but he showed ace performances during his first season in Cincinnati following his trade. The right-hander went 17-6 with a 3.21 ERA in 33 games and was named a National League All-Star.
Volquez logged only nine starts in 2009, a season cut short by an elbow injury and Tommy John surgery. During his rehab last season, Volquez was handed a 50-game suspension while on the disabled list for violating the league policy on performance-enhancing drugs. Volquez said he was taking medication to try and start a family, but took responsibility for not following the correct procedures with the team.
After debuting just after the All-Star break last season, Volquez went 4-3 with a 4.31 ERA over 12 starts. But he had a 1.95 ERA over his final four regular-season starts as the Reds claimed an NL Central division title. That earned him an NL Division Series Game 1 start against the Phillies, which just lasted 1 2/3 innings with four runs allowed in a loss to Roy Halladay during his historic postseason no-hitter.
The early portion of spring wasn't very smooth for Volquez, whose prior drug suspension caused a government delay in acquiring his work visa paperwork. He had to return to the Dominican Republic, missing two starts in the process, to get his immigration affairs in order.
Volquez pitched in three big league games and one Minor League game this spring. He had an 8.38 ERA in the Cactus League outings and displayed command issues with 11 walks in just 9 2/3 innings. His best outing, however, was the final one on Friday vs. the Padres. He pitched five innings and allowed three earned runs and nine hits with four walks and three strikeouts.
"This time, I have a good feeling now, close to where I was last year," Volquez said. "My last inning, my rhythm was better, my delivery, everything."
The Reds are counting on Volquez to stabilize himself even more than before spring started. In the past 10 days, both Cueto and Bailey went down with shoulder injuries and projected No. 2 starter Bronson Arroyo was diagnosed with mononucleosis. That's forced Baker to move Leake and Sam LeCure into the rotation.
"There's that depth I was talking about earlier," Baker said. "I didn't know we'd have to call upon it so soon. We'll get them right and look at it in the positive way that [Bailey] and Cueto will both be strong later in the year. We'll do what we can earlier in the year."
"We need those guys," Volquez said. "We need Johnny and we need Homer. But we've got Woody and Leake that can hold them up."
And on Thursday, the Reds hope to have Volquez, too. Front and center.