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Stoic through it all, Votto reaching new heights

Reds superstar making critics look foolish with vintage second-half surge

Joey Votto dropped the bat nonchalantly and looked briefly toward left field as the baseball soared into the seats. And then he was off circling the bases, head down, as always, expressionless, as always.

This was one more perfect moment in a season filled with them. If we're discussing the best baseball players on the planet, Votto is back on everyone's short list, a point that was driven home on Wednesday as he hammered a three-run home run in the ninth inning to set the Reds up for a 7-4 victory over the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

In doing so, Votto continued an insanely strong second half, one in which he has played his way right into the National League Most Valuable Player Award debate and re-established himself as one of baseball's greatest and most consistent performers.

In 45 games since the All-Star break, Votto has -- take a deep breath -- put up video-game numbers: .399 batting average, .576 on-base percentage, 1.325 on-base plus slugging percentage, 12 home runs, 14 doubles, 28 RBIs, 59 walks.

No other player is even close. Toronto's Edwin Encarnacion is the next-closest player in second-half OPS, but he's more than 100 points behind Votto. Likewise, Bryce Harper's .457 OBP since the break only serves to make Votto look better.

Sometimes, it happens this way. That is, we get a peek at one of the great performers on the planet operating at the highest possible level. Until the ninth inning on Wednesday, Votto was having one of his few bad days at the office: three strikeouts and a single in four at-bats.

But with the game tied at 4, Votto stepped up with two teammates on base. Cubs reliever Hector Rondon missed with a pair of fastballs, then tried again, letting a 97-mph heater catch too much of the plate.

Votto's swing has always been a blend of strength and quickness, as majestic as there is in the game. And in this moment, one swing spoke volumes for both his season and this place and time in his nine-year career.

Video: Must C Clutch: Votto's no-doubter puts Reds up in 9th

Here's the thing to know about Joey Votto: He has never taken any of it for granted. He has always appreciated everything that has happened to him. He's not much for saying this kind of thing, but those who know him best say that he does.

Votto is as conscientious and as professional as any player on the planet. He gets it in ways large and small. But this amazing season has reminded him how sweet it is to succeed at the highest level.

This season comes after one that included pain and some doubt along with some of the most ridiculous criticism any player has endured. Votto was injured in 2014. He played just 62 games and was forced onto the disabled list twice. He tried to play through the knee and leg injuries for a time, and when he could not play, he gave up.

"I was the worst player on the field," Votto said. This did not sit well with some. There were even fools in the media who questioned whether Votto was really hurt.

Votto had played all 162 games the previous season, 2013, and had long ago proven his greatness, compiling a .962 OPS in six prior seasons. In those six seasons, from 2008-13, baseball's OPS leaderboard looked like this:

1. Miguel Cabrera, .995
2. Albert Pujols, .969
3. Joey Votto, .962

Maybe others wouldn't care what was being said. Votto did. He was bothered, not just by the doubts about the seriousness of his injury, but by his hitting approach -- the idea that he wasn't aggressive enough at the plate, that he should have been willing to swing at a few more bad pitches and perhaps hit a couple more home runs.

In other words, there were people suggesting Votto should make more outs, that he should give us his plate discipline for a bit more power. Even people who should have known better -- people in the game -- chimed in. Votto heard them, too, even if he tried not to.

To his credit, Votto never wavered. He knew his swing and his approach were the right ones. He knew plate discipline was part of what had made him great. And so after his difficult 2014 season, Votto focused singularly on getting his legs healthy.

Votto is only 31 years old, and even though he was approaching 1,000 career games on Opening Day, he believed in his heart he could be as great as ever. If there was an ounce of doubt, it was in whether his body would allow him to do the things he'd done before.

Here's the answer: Votto is better than ever. He was really good in the first half of this season and has been insanely good in the second. Harper is a solid favorite to win the NL MVP Award with an 8.0 WAR, but Paul Goldschmidt (7.5) and Votto (6.5) are still in the discussion.

Still, the whole thing has to be gratifying to a player coming off a nightmarish 2014 season. Votto is whole again physically, and his play reflects that.

"I had no idea what I was going to come in with this year," Votto told Cincinnati reporters the other day.

That is, Votto had no idea if his health would hold up. He'd been hurt so infrequently that he didn't have a lot of context for where he was headed. Votto has found that all the work and all the rehab have paid off, that he's capable of doing the things he's always done. And lately, he has done them better than ever.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
Read More: Cincinnati Reds, Joey Votto