O Canada! Votto's 1st HR a winner in home country

First baseman's 8th-inning jack, Ashcraft's solid MLB debut help Cincy go 5-4 on road trip

May 23rd, 2022

TORONTO -- When Joey Votto fielded questions from reporters before the Reds’ weekend series with the Blue Jays, he spoke of one clear objective – he wanted to see a ball fly off his bat and into the Rogers Centre stands.

The Etobicoke, Ontario native got his wish as the 38-year-old connected on his first jack of the season for the decisive blow in the Reds’ 3-2 win on Sunday afternoon. The win capped a winning road trip as Cincinnati went 5-4 on its three-city tour through Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Toronto.

With one out and the game tied at 2 in the eighth inning, Blue Jays reliever Yimi García spun a slider down in the zone, but Votto dug it out. The quick twist and the two-handed follow through, which Reds fans have grown so accustomed to seeing over the years, resulted in his deep fly ball landing a Statcast-projected 346 feet down the right-field line, just inside the foul pole.

“I felt better today in the box,” Votto said, emphasizing the slow, meticulous improvements in his approach. “Some good misses and a good result at the end, of course.”

The 2022 season hasn’t been kind to Votto who, even before his stint on the COVID IL, was off to an uncharacteristically poor start. The 2010 National League MVP was slashing .122/.278/.135 through 22 games before he arrived in Toronto -- and that trip home has been exactly what Votto needed.

“I thought I'd be more nervous,” he said. “But I didn't feel that way. I just felt more joy. I felt more satisfaction coming back here and being able to see family, and be able to perform well.”

The momentum started building on Friday with a quiet 1-for-4, including a double, then Votto logged another double on Saturday, but with an RBI attached. Sunday was the kicker, though, and after Votto’s first three at-bats, manager David Bell sensed a change in his star player’s demeanor. 

“There was a knowingness, like something good was gonna happen on his part,” Bell said. “And then, we all kind of picked up on it.”

Votto’s home run and the Reds’ subsequent victory was made possible by a solid outing from Graham Ashcraft, the club’s No. 8 prospect per MLB Pipeline, who flashed some filthy stuff. It was the right-hander’s Major League debut, but he certainly didn’t look like a rookie. 

“It's everything a kid dreams of,” Ashcraft said of the adrenaline he felt during his first start. “Growing up, playing the sport, and then you guys finally get to play it at this level, you just can't help but go in wide-eyed and happy.”

The 24-year-old rode his blazing high-90s fastball through 4 1/3 steady innings, at one point striking out three Blue Jays hitters in a row, before handing off to the bullpen.

It’s been a disappointing season for Cincinnati, in part because Votto’s either been scuffling or on the injured list. The longest-tenured active Reds player is the heart of this roster that’s been picked apart lately, and when Votto plays well, there’s a good chance the team plays well, too.

But it wasn’t just Votto who contributed on offense. Outfielder Aristides Aquino -- who was designated for assignment on April 30, passed through waivers, then brought back up from Triple-A Louisville on Friday -- kickstarted the offense with a ringing two-run double in the first.

Aquino, like Votto, was struggling this season, having collected just one hit in 42 at-bats before Sunday. Together, they could feel the momentum building, Votto said. 

“Hitting is tough, man,” Votto said. “It comes sometimes in waves, crashing waves, and other times it's just kind of steady. … We both started poorly, and the most satisfying thing is coming back and proving that you can do it to yourself, for yourself, and I hope that [Aquino] is feeling that way.”

For Votto, who now has an extra-base hit in three straight contests after recording just one in his previous 22 games, it’s a sign of good things to come. And if that game-winning jack was indeed his last career at-bat at Rogers Centre, what a storybook ending it was to succeed in a city that will always be very close to his heart.