Joey Votto is the hero in his hometown as the Reds win the series finale in Toronto

Cincinnati Reds left fielder Tommy Pham (28) and shortstop Matt Reynolds (4) celebrate after...
Cincinnati Reds left fielder Tommy Pham (28) and shortstop Matt Reynolds (4) celebrate after scoring against the Toronto Blue Jays during the first inning at Rogers Centre.(Provided to our business partners at Cincinnati Enquirer)
Published: May. 22, 2022 at 5:24 PM EDT
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TORONTO (Cincinnati Enquirer) - When Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto drove up to the Rogers Centre on Friday, the memories started pouring in.

As he arrived at the stadium in his hometown for the Reds’ series against the Toronto Blue Jays, he remembered how his father worked close to the stadium. He remembered watching Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter. He remembered how he was too shy to ask for an autograph, but how it was enough to watch them from the upper deck and learn about what made these stars so successful.

On Sunday, Votto had a signature moment in Toronto in what might be his final game in his hometown. In the top of the eighth inning, Votto hit his first home run of the year to lead the Reds to a 3-2 win over the Blue Jays.

All season, Votto said he has been frustrated with his results at the plate. He entered Sunday’s game hitting .134 on the season with just three extra-base hits. Votto said he had a responsibility to play well, and Reds manager David Bell showed how much Votto mattered to the team by putting Votto right back in the No. 4 spot in the lineup.

Before he went on the COVID IL on May 3, Votto was working through a few mechanical adjustments that he hoped could pay off. He had recently changed bats, and he had made a few small tweaks to his batting stance.

Votto didn’t get a chance to show how well those changes could work right away. He was sick for over a week, and then he went on a rehab assignment to get back in a rhythm after missing time.

In Votto’s first three games back, he has hit better than he had in any other three-game stretch this season.

Because of Votto’s homer, the Reds got the win in starting pitcher Graham Ashcraft’s MLB debut. Ashcraft allowed two runs in 4 ⅓ innings, and his final line was even more impressive considering how his last few days had gone.

On Saturday, Ashcraft was available to pitch out of the Reds bullpen. Starting pitcher Connor Overton was dealing with a sore back, and Bell said he knew there was a good chance that the Reds would need Ashcraft to start on Sunday.

The Reds didn’t need Ashcraft to pitch out of the bullpen on Saturday, and after the game, he learned the news he had been waiting for. Bell told him that in about 18 hours, Ashcraft was going to make his MLB debut.

Usually, there’s more time for pitchers to process that news and prepare for their debut. Ashcraft didn’t have that luxury. Instead, he had to get ready to face one of the best lineups in MLB.

Ashcraft, the team’s No. 8 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, hit the ground running. Following an early two-run RBI double by Reds outfielder Aristides Aquino, Ashcraft took the mound with the Reds already leading in the game. From his first pitch, Ashcraft showed what he’s best at.

He started the game with a 99.7 mph fastball that was called for a looking strike one. Ashcraft used that pitch to become a top prospect, and he relied on that pitch all game in Toronto.

Ashcraft’s fastball is a unique pitch that cuts and minor league hitters often confused it for a 98 mph slider. Against the Blue Jays, Ashcraft consistently jammed hitters on the inside part of the plate to get weak contact.

While Ashcraft had three strikeouts, he looked like a groundball pitcher who had a fastball and a slider that can overpower hitters. Ashcraft allowed a run in the second and third innings, and both runs were a result of a few hard-hit grounders strung together.

Ashcraft left a tied game at 2-2 with one out and two runners on in the fifth inning, and Bell brought Tony Santillan in from the bullpen. Santillan showed why he has been the Reds’ go-to reliever over the last week, getting a flyout and a strikeout with the bases loaded to end the inning.

In Friday and Saturday’s losses, Santillan was warming up in the bullpen in the ninth inning in case the Reds tied the score or took the lead. The Reds didn’t tie the score or take the lead in those games, so Santillan hadn’t pitched yet in Toronto. When Santillan got the opportunity, he showed how dynamic his slider is.

Santillan ended the fifth inning by getting Blue Jays’ third baseman Matt Chapman to take an off-balanced swing at a slider that tailed outside the strike zone. With the score still tied at 2, Santillan stayed in the game for the sixth inning and pitched another scoreless inning.

Votto put the Reds out in front with his solo home run in the eighth, and the Reds won the final game of the series in Toronto. Before Sunday, Votto hadn’t been the hero in a Reds win this season. That changed, and this time he shined in his return game to his hometown.

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