John Clay: Manager's flexibility gives Reds a needed jolt

jclay@herald-leader.com,John ClayApril 16, 2014 

CINCINNATI — Fifteen games into his debut as a major-league manager, we have learned one thing about Bryan Price.

He is not stubborn.

His Cincinnati Reds started 3-7. Bats were sputtering. Fans were spitting. The season had just begun, yes, but it's never too early to move in the right direction.

So Price made a managerial decision. The former pitching coach switched the batting order. Last Saturday, for the first time since Aug. 8, 2008, Joey Votto's name occupied the No. 2 hole on the lineup card, a spot ahead of his normal hitting position.

The result? Let's excuse the first game as an adjustment period. In the past four, the Reds have scored 30 runs. Votto has eight hits in 17 at-bats with three homers and seven RBI. The Reds are 3-1.

Wednesday, Johnny Cueto dominated Pittsburgh in hurling a three-hit shutout for a 4-0 victory, but Votto contributed a two-run homer in the seventh that gave breathing room to a one-run game.

"It gave us the separation we were looking for," Price said.

It was something else the Reds were looking for — their first series win.

"To win our first series after five or six tries," said outfielder Chris Heisey, "that feels pretty good."

We'd have asked Votto his thoughts but the former National League MVP was long gone when the clubhouse opened. The Reds are off Thursday before heading out on a 10-game road trip. Votto apparently had things to do.

Besides, it was not his idea to alter the batting order. Price jokingly (or not) gave credit to Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty, who has championed the idea for some time.

"It was important that we acknowledge offensively that we weren't doing what we are capable of doing," Price said. "To sit on my hands and say, 'OK, it's definitely going to turn' — to me would have just been kind of conceding that we're at the mercy of the status quo."

It also differentiates Price from his predecessor. Dusty Baker was at old-school's mercy. He sacrificed in certain situations because that is what you did in baseball. He hit his best hitter third because that is what you did in baseball.

And yet sound logic exists for batting Votto second. Votto's career on-base percentage is off the charts. Batting second gets him more at-bats and gives more RBI opportunities to those hitting behind him.

It also puts him behind the freaky fleet Billy Hamilton, who is struggling at the plate (.170) but an absolute terror when on base.

An example came in Wednesday's seventh inning. Hamilton reached on a fielder's choice which brought Votto to the plate with two out. Hamilton had already stolen two bases. You'd think he would try No. 3. He did not.

"It was probably even better that Billy didn't go," said Price, explaining that if Hamilton swiped second, Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano would have only glanced at the man on second base and focused on Votto.

With Hamilton on first, however, Liriano went to a slide-step, missed his location and Votto yanked the baseball into the right-field seats for a 3-0 Cincinnati lead.

Price's reported strengths were communication and patience. Was switching the order so quickly a sign of impatience? No, he argued. It was a history lesson.

"This is the beginning of my fifth year here," the manager said. "This record has played for a long time and it's a record of having periods of great offensive production and other periods of ineffectiveness.

"And I also know we don't have Shin-Soo Choo leading off, we have Billy Hamilton. We've got some question marks around some of our players that aren't established."

Thus it made no sense to stick with the status quo.

"I just felt like doing what we'd done the past four years wasn't going to work with what we had here in 2014," Price said.

The different lineup has produced different results. First 10 games, the Reds averaged 2.8 runs per game. With Votto batting second, the Reds are averaging six runs per game. And winning games.

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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