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Reds get Votto back with big division lead

PHOENIX -- If everything goes according to the Reds' plan, Friday will mark the 45th and final game that Joey Votto is not at their disposal because of a knee injury, as they plan to activate him when rosters expand at the beginning of September.

As for the outcome after their past 44 games, it's simply impressive.

"I think everyone would agree that we exceeded what we expected, obviously," catcher Ryan Hanigan said.

The Reds didn't just tread water without one of the game's best players; they blew everyone else out of the pool. Through Wednesday's win at Arizona, they've gone 30-14 without the former National League MVP Award winner, and are the owners of baseball's best record at 80-52.

Cincinnati went from clinging to a one-game lead to being a season-high eight-game leader over the second-place Cardinals.

"We got on a better run than you could have expected, even with Votto," starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo said.

And now, as they near their final 30 games of the regular season and aim their sights on a second division title in three years, the Reds get to enjoy the equivalent of adding one of baseball's best players for the stretch run.

Beware, NL.

Votto left the Reds' lineup on July 16, before he had his first arthroscopic surgery to repair torn meniscus cartilage in his left knee. At the time, he was batting .342 with 14 home runs and 49 RBIs, and he had a league-best .465 on-base percentage. His 36 doubles, which was on a pace to smash an 81-year-old record, still ranks tied for second in the NL.

"You can get by for a while, but sooner or later, you need your big boy," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "He's your equalizer against a real tough pitcher. Plus, when he comes back, he sets my lineup the way that it should be. Right now, things are set the way they have to be to give us the best chance to win."

While Baker had to mix and match his lineups repeatedly, he also benefited from having players who stepped up -- such as Ryan Ludwick and rookie Todd Frazier.

Ludwick, who sputtered the first two-plus months of the season, found a groove in June and took that to another level after Votto went down. Ludwick batted .336 in 40 games, with 12 home runs and 35 RBIs.

Frazier, who stepped in for Scott Rolen at third base in the first half of the season, primarily played first base in the second half. In his last 43 games, he batted .313 with eight homers and 32 RBIs, while creating buzz that he is deserving of the NL Rookie of the Year Award.

Brandon Phillips batted .316 and drove in 21 runs in 39 games, and took over Votto's third spot in the lineup. Rolen, who endured a rough first half and battled with injuries, batted .330 over his 30 games.

"They have done an excellent job," Votto told reporters Tuesday, while on his rehab assignment at Class A Dayton. "Watching the games, I'm a little upset I am not part of the team and I'm not a part of all that winning. I'm very proud of them, because I've seen so many seasons blossom from the All-Star break until now where some guys are going to move on to have good contracts and other guys have a chance to start next year, and guys just really taking a step up."

With Votto, the Reds were batting .249 and averaging 4.16 runs per game over their first 89 games of the season. In the past 44 games since he was out, the team batted .270 and averaged 4.6 runs per game.

"I feel like the first news of it, guys were a little concerned about losing a player like that," Hanigan said. "Everybody said, 'You know what, this is our time to step it up.' Everybody has had more chances to really help the team win. We've gotten it done in different ways -- pitching, clutch hits and defense."

The pitching staff -- led by ace Johnny Cueto, as well as Mat Latos and Arroyo -- also stepped up with strong performances that kept the team in games. The bullpen -- anchored by closer Aroldis Chapman -- led the league in ERA.

"A lot of people have to be pulling on different ropes to get you over the hump," Arroyo said. "We haven't missed a beat without Joey. That's a testament to this ballclub and that we have enough guys for depth."

With Votto returning, there will be one very important piece of bench depth in Frazier. Baker will have the good problem of trying to figure out what to do with him, and the skipper will have to get creative. Rolen will remain at third base and Ludwick will stay in left field, but Frazier will see time at both positions when days off are needed. On days Votto needs a break, Frazier will take first base.

The original prognosis following Votto's operation was that he would miss three or four weeks. He was close to meeting that projection, until there was a setback caused during a sliding drill. A second minor procedure was needed to remove floating cartilage on Aug. 10.

Coincidentally, that was the day the Reds ended a five-game losing streak -- the only real bump they've endured during Votto's road to recovery.

"It's been good that he doesn't have to feel he has to rush back," Hanigan said. "It hasn't been like a 'we need Votto' situation. But at the end of the day, we need Votto. It's going to be great to have him back."

Cincinnati Reds, Joey Votto