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Votto showing early signs of former self

First baseman appears rejuvenated at plate after injury-plagued season in 2014 @philgrogers

CHICAGO -- Healthy again, Joey Votto is making pitchers pay.

Votto is doing it, as usual, his own cerebral way, with his brain guiding his bat. He's driving the ball without sacrificing the discipline that has given him the best on-base percentage among active players, by a wide margin.

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CHICAGO -- Healthy again, Joey Votto is making pitchers pay.

Votto is doing it, as usual, his own cerebral way, with his brain guiding his bat. He's driving the ball without sacrificing the discipline that has given him the best on-base percentage among active players, by a wide margin.

View Full Game Coverage

Votto just missed a home run in the top of the 10th inning on Monday night by a few feet because of the quirky dimensions of Wrigley Field, with his drive on a Hector Rondon curveball sailing to the base of the wall in the so-called well in right field. It came on a 1-2 pitch, with his hands at least two inches, maybe more, from the knob of the bat.

"It's almost that Barry Bonds effect, if you will,'' Reds broadcaster Jeff Brantley said. "I saw Bonds choke up so may times, but when you barrel up a ball with the quickness …''

Video: STL@CIN: Votto fields chopper, gets out at first

Cubs manager Joe Maddon was asked about Votto on Tuesday, and he spoke about the same thing as the Reds' television crew -- that narrow band of wood showing between the knob of Votto's Louisville Slugger and his hands, especially in two-strike counts.

"I know how good he is,'' said Maddon. "But what I saw focusing on him [Monday] night is this [one] thing. Everybody is worried about shifting, but you see what he does when he gets deep into a count. He chokes up and he really gets involved in the pitch mentally. It's like, '[Forget about] mechanics, I'm going to move the baseball right here.' He does that extremely well.''

Votto says his approach has changed with experience throughout his seven full seasons in Cincinnati. In an era when so many hitters don't seem to care about strikeouts, he takes them personally.

"It's been an evolving process,'' Votto said after the Reds' 3-2 victory over the Cubs on Tuesday night. "I have to put the ball in play. I'm not great at it; I'm OK at it. But I feel an obligation to put the ball in play. Whether that happens early in the count or late in the count, so be it. But with two strikes, it's something I certainly focus on.''

Video: STL@CIN: Votto hits two homers vs. Cards

Votto is one of baseball's best hitters, and he's coming off a three-season spiral in which a variety of leg injuries left him unable to be as productive as in 2010, when he won the National League Most Valuable Player Award after hitting .324 with 37 home runs and a Bonds-like 1.024 OPS. He changed up his routine last winter, spending the entire offseason back home in Etobicoke, a diverse area on the western edge of Toronto, and it appears he's better off for getting back to the basics.

Votto, 31, worked hard on conditioning, with an emphasis on the left quad area that caused him to miss 100 games last season, at the Toronto Athletic Club. He took batting practice indoors from Greg O'Halloran, a former big leaguer who coached him as a teenager, when he was developing his disciplined approach at the plate.

It was a typical spring for Votto, who provided no real signs he would get off to a fast start. He hit .256 and had only one extra-base hit in 39 at-bats.

"I felt like he was healthy,'' Cincinnati manager Bryan Price said. "I felt like he looked great in Spring Training. I've never seen Joey have a big Spring Training. … His goals for Spring Training might be very different than someone who is trying to make the club or somebody that isn't as meticulous about how they get [ready]. I think he's a meticulous guy who has a very dependable plan on how to get ready for Opening Day.''

Votto did tell's Richard Justice that he felt he could perform "like myself,'' and revealed that his own standards might be higher than those of fans who have longed for his next 30-plus homer season.

"I think about Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout and Paul Goldschmidt,'' Votto said. "Those guys are my competition. I think about finishing years off and being better than them. I have to do everything to be that.''

Video: PIT@CIN: Votto hits a two-run homer off Burnett

Votto homered off the Pirates' A.J. Burnett last Thursday, in his 13th at-bat of the season, and then homered twice the next day against the Cardinals' John Lackey. He had a triple and a double in Monday's series opener against the Cubs, and he followed it up with a double and a run-scoring single on Tuesday.

Through eight games, Votto is hitting .375 with six extra-base hits and nine RBIs. He has six walks and only four strikeouts. It's both a vintage performance and the most productive out-of-the-chute stretch of his career.

"I've seen this before,'' said Price, who joined the Reds as pitching coach for the 2010 season before being named manager last season. "This guy isn't a stranger to me. I saw some of his most productive years when I first got here, up until he had the knee injury in 2012. I feel like I'm looking at the same old Joey that I've known since I came to the Reds.''

Price didn't stop there.

"I also notice he seems to be more athletic,'' he said. "Maybe it's just because he feels, if not 100 percent then close to it. He's been very agile moving around the bag, running the bases. He just looks like an even younger version of himself.''

Youth and intelligence, that's a dangerous combination.

Votto's fourth-inning single off Jake Arrieta put Cincinnati ahead on Tuesday. He grounded a 2-2 fastball at his knees into center field, with one of his put-the-ball-in-play swings.

Like the two-strike double off Rondon the night before, the single was satisfying.

"The guys I take the most pride in having success against are the ones that have the really difficult secondary stuff, really good put-away pitch,'' Votto said. "Rondon has good stuff. They've got a lot of good arms in that bullpen. You have success against guys who throw hard and are trying to strike you out, you feel good about it.''

As much as Maddon hated the results, he loved Votto's process.

"If you want to have somebody break a shift or not be a shift candidate, then teach him to hit like [Votto] does,'' Maddon said. "[Anthony] Rizzo does a nice job, too. There're not as many guys who -- I call it a B hack -- they'll go up there and make adjustments during the course of the at-bat. Some guys have one swing, one plane, one size fits all. Other guys have this ability to manipulate the head of the bat with their hands, and that's what [Votto] does. Swinging versus hitting the baseball. I think too many guys swing at a baseball, not enough try to hit a baseball. Semantics, but I think there's a truth in that.''

Votto is the complete package. He knows he's only started his season, but it could be special.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for

Cincinnati Reds, Joey Votto