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Even in slump, Votto commanding respect

As foundation for team in rebuilding phase, Reds' 1B driven to return to MVP form
MLB.com @TracyRingolsby

DENVER -- The .215 average flashed on the Coors Field scoreboard as Reds first baseman Joey Votto walked to the plate in the ninth inning of an eventual 7-2 victory over the Rockies on Wednesday night.

Rockies manager Walt Weiss, however, didn't buy it. Not one bit.

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DENVER -- The .215 average flashed on the Coors Field scoreboard as Reds first baseman Joey Votto walked to the plate in the ninth inning of an eventual 7-2 victory over the Rockies on Wednesday night.

Rockies manager Walt Weiss, however, didn't buy it. Not one bit.

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And so, after Billy Hamilton stole second base on the second pitch to Votto and Jason Motte then went to a 3-0 count, Weiss signaled for an intentional walk.

"I was seriously considering not pitching to him at all," said Weiss.

Video: CIN@COL: Hamilton races home on throwing error

Votto may be off to the worst start of his near-decade in the big leagues, but he is only 32. He finished third in the National League Most Valuable Player Award voting a year ago on a team that finished in last place in the NL Central, 34 games below .500.

And other than an injury-interrupted 2014, during which he was limited to 62 games and a .255 average, the only time Votto has hit below .300 in his career was in 2008, when he was runner-up in voting for the NL Rookie of the Year Award with a .297 mark.

So instead of breathing a sigh of relief that the four-time All-Star, who won the NL MVP Award in 2010, is coming to town in a funk, the Rockies felt that Votto was going to be a major challenge.

"He gets your full attention, especially coming in here," Weiss said of Coors Field. "You see [Votto struggling] and it's a red flag. This is a place guys can get comfortable, and with Votto, you've got a great hitter. You've got a guy you know is going to have a good year."

There are signs of an awakening. Votto was 1-for-3 with two walks, including the ninth, and his first-inning groundout brought home Cincinnati's initial run. And for as much of a funk as he has been in, he has driven in 31 runs.

Video: CIN@COL: Votto skies a solo homer to left in the 6th

"The last three games, he has driven seven balls," said Reds manager Bryan Price. "He has consistently had good passes on the pitches."

None of that is lost on the opposition.

"I pay more attention to the track record," said Weiss. "And he has an impressive track record."

Personally, Votto may still have a good year, but that's not necessarily satisfying. When he signed a contract prior to the 2013 season that guaranteed him $225 million over a 10-year period from 2014-23, it wasn't with the idea of kicking back and enjoying life. Votto was proclaimed the franchise player, and for him, that meant he was being expected to set the tone for the franchise to contend.

Cincinnati, after all, won NL Central titles in 2010 and '12, and was an NL Wild Card in '13. The Reds, however, finished in fourth place in '14, and last place a year ago -- their 98 losses equaled the third most in the franchise's 134-year existence, and their 36-game division deficit was their biggest since 1953.

It wasn't pretty. And it has Cincinnati in the midst of a major overhaul. Votto, however, was to be the foundation. He is the veteran who was to provide respectability to a franchise in a rebuilding phase.

And that's why this season has become arguably the biggest challenge in his big league career.

The Reds have won two of the first three games of a four-game visit to Coors Field but are 18-35, the franchise's worst start to a season since 1950, and its third worst all-time.

There are plenty of areas of concern, including the fact Cincinnati already has used the disabled list 12 times, and the club currently has nine players on it. The Reds already have had nine rookies make Major League debuts, equaling the total from a year ago. And 53 games into the season, 10 pitchers have started at least one game.

But for a consummate professional like Votto, the fact he has not played at the level he expects himself to play eats at him. It's why he arrives at the park early, and if he's not in the cage to take early swings, he is in the video room looking for those bits and pieces he has been missing, in preparation for regular batting practice and then the game.

"It's harder for someone like him [than others]," admitted Price. "As many expectations as the fans and ownership and teammates have for him, his own self expectation exceeds anything anybody else can have."

Price said for players like Tony Gwynn, Rod Carew or Wade Boggs, there's seemingly a natural instinct for hitting.

For Votto, however, "it's hard work for him, and he admits it. These first two months have been a huge challenge."

Price paused.

"What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," he said.

And Joey Votto is very much alive.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Write 'em Cowboy.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

Cincinnati Reds, Joey Votto