Richard Justice

Reds' run without Votto shows their talent, will

Justice: Reds' run without Votto shows their talent, will

Reds' run without Votto shows their talent, will
HOUSTON -- When Joey Votto went down, Brandon Phillips spoke up.

"All right, it's time to start losing," he announced.

Really, Brandon?

"That's what everybody thinks," he added.

Indeed, plenty of people believed the Reds would fade away without the guy who'd been the National League's best offensive player this season.

They were 50-38 and leading the NL Central by a game when Votto injured his left knee on July 16. Suddenly, there was an opening for the Cardinals and Pirates.

The Reds couldn't have known it at the time, but they were about to learn plenty about themselves. They were about to find out that they were a mentally tough team and a talented team. They were not brought down by one injury, even one to one of baseball's best hitters.

So Phillips challenged his teammates.

"Let's go out here and get famous and have a good time," he said.

The Reds are 30-14 since Votto left their lineup thanks to contributions from a long list of offensive players, most notably rookie Todd Frazier and outfielder Ryan Ludwick.

They've also had baseball's best bullpen and a rotation that hasn't had a single pitcher miss a start.

And there's manager Dusty Baker, whose calming presence sets a tone for all of it.

"We saw that as an opportunity for a bunch of other guys to step up and pull some of that slack that has been left," center fielder Drew Stubbs said. "I think you see guys like Frazier and Ryan Ludwick. They're probably the two centerpieces of the push. At different times over the past several weeks, you've had a different hero here and there. We've got great efforts from our pitching. We were faced with adversity, and we've kind of worked our way through it as a unit. It's fun to be part of."

The Reds have blown open the NL Central race, opening up an 8 1/2-game lead. At 80-52, they reached 80 victories faster than any Cincinnati team since the 1976 Big Red Machine.

"I feel like the team unity got even stronger," Phillips said. "We knew we needed everybody to produce."

First, there was Frazier.

He played third when Scott Rolen got hurt and moved across the diamond when Votto was injured.

He's hitting .294 with 23 doubles and 18 home runs. His OPS is .907. Since the All-Star break, he's dotted across the NL leader board.

"Frazier didn't know what he was capable of," Baker said. "A young player doesn't know. He thinks he knows. One thing about Frazier, he ain't scared. He doesn't lack confidence. He enjoys playing baseball. That's a big part of it."

Ludwick has been a huge contributor, too. General manager Walt Jocketty signed him a few days before Spring Training to split time with Chris Heisey in left.

Ludwick was coming off a frustrating season and a half with the Padres and Pirates. He believed the change of scenery would give him the opportunity to re-establish his career.

He has 13 home runs since the All-Star break, second only to San Diego's Chase Headley in the National League, and has contributed big hit after big hit.

"I think we believe in one another," Ludwick said. "We've got a good team. I don't think there's a magic potion. Joey is one of the best hitters in all of baseball. It's never a good thing when you lose a guy like that. But I don't think anyone in here was that worried. We felt like we still had the components to win."

Baker's challenge now will be to juggle the various pieces, especially Frazier's playing time, when Votto returns, most likely next week.

But a 30-14 run without Votto speak volumes about the Reds, not just Johnny Cueto at the front of the rotation and Aroldis Chapman at the back of the bullpen, but the entire group.

"That's what strong-minded teams do," Baker said. "They find a way to pick each other up. These guys don't panic. They're highly determined. Once they get a taste of winning, they don't like to lose. They're a competitive group. You don't have to motivate as much as if you have a non-competitive group. Our guys have responded."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.