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For Ludwick, health is key

Reds outfielder eyes bounceback season

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- During the offseason, Ryan Ludwick and Reds manager Bryan Price had a brief chat about Ludwick's surgically repaired right shoulder.

Ludwick, who injured his shoulder on Opening Day last season while diving head-first into third base, told his new manager that he was fully healthy and itching to get back on the field.

And that's the last time the pair has had a serious conversation about the status of Ludwick's shoulder. There's been no need. Ludwick has recovered and isn't showing signs of having the injury flare up.

In fact, Ludwick had recovered by August, just in time for the Reds' playoff push. But he was never able to find a groove and struggled down the stretch, as the Reds grabbed the National League's second Wild Card spot.

"It was tough," Ludwick said. "That was the first time I have ever had to rehab and then join the team midseason. It was an adjustment, and I don't wish that upon anyone. It was not fun."

Ludwick played in just 38 games last season and posted a .240 average that -- if it qualified -- would have been the second-lowest of his career. His raw power suffered the most, as Ludwick recorded only seven extra-base hits -- two of them homers.

But in the Reds' biggest game of the season, Ludwick was the only hitter to come through. He went 3-for-4 with two doubles in a Wild Card loss to the Pirates.

Obviously, one solid performance wasn't consolation enough for Ludwick, who is eager to put 2013 behind him.

"I'm healthy, and knock on wood I stay that way," Ludwick said. "I feel like if I stay that way, I'm going to have a good season. Every time I've stayed healthy for the past five seasons, I've been productive. So the key for me is trying not to get hurt."

Ludwick's assessment is pretty spot-on. In the past, he's had trouble at the plate immediately following his injuries.

After making his Major League debut in 2002 for the Rangers, Ludwick fractured his hip. He hit .247 in 47 games the following season.

In 2009, Ludwick hit the disabled list with a strained hamstring in May. He returned on May 29, and within a month his average had dropped from .274 at the time of the injury to .227. He recovered to piece together a solid season (.265/22/97), but his numbers would have been All-Star caliber if not for the injury and the ensuing slump.

Price has noticed a bit of an edge to Ludwick this spring, meaning the reacclimation period may be over.

"He's back to his normal self," Price said. "He's trying to get his swing down, he's working hard on his defense, and he doesn't want to DH in these games. He wants to play left field and get his legs in playing shape. He's back to being the old Luddy. We don't even talk about the injury. It's just talking about his swing and making sure he's feeling good at the plate."

So how exactly is Ludwick feeling at the plate? The injury didn't affect his defense much because it was his non-throwing shoulder. But offensively, a healthy Ludwick that can return to his 2012 form would obviously be a major boost to the Reds' offense.

This spring Ludwick is 5-for-23 with a homer and three RBIs. He had two hits in the Reds' loss to Colorado on Wednesday.

"I felt good coming into camp, but as of late, I'm kind of caught in between as far as fastball/offspeed," Ludwick said. "I need to work on the timing."

Price hasn't noticed Ludwick trying to compensate for last year's injury on any level.

"Even when I talked to him this winter, it felt like he had gotten past and gotten through the injury," Price said. "It was really a non-issue. His body felt great, and he worked really hard coming into Spring Training."

There isn't a whole lot Ludwick wants to take from 2013. When asked what he learned from the year, Ludwick simply quipped, "I learned not to get hurt."

Ludwick lives to play in big games. He's a career .382 hitter over three postseasons, including a monster NL Division Series in 2012, when he hit three homers and batted .333 with a .455 on-base percentage in five games against the Giants.

Ludwick also lives to play for the Reds -- the team he grew up rooting for. Both of his parents are from Cincinnati, and he was 12 when the Reds last won a World Series in 1990.

"I watched these guys as a kid," Ludwick said. "It's pretty special. It's a team I followed since I was a child, and to be able to play here -- it's a dream come true."

AJ Cassavell is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.

Cincinnati Reds, Ryan Ludwick