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Reds' Votto continues working to distance himself from knee surgery

By Scott Miller | Senior Baseball Columnist

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Forget, for a moment, Team Canada and the World Baseball Classic.

Joey Votto doesn't even know for sure how his surgically repaired left knee will react when the Reds open their Cactus League schedule Friday against the Indians.

Or when they engage the Indians again on Saturday. Or how it will be doing a week from now.

He thinks he's good to go. And yet. …

“Play some games,” Votto says. “The games will tell me whether I'm ready to go.

“Practice is just practice.”

Right now, he has no way of knowing what he can give the Reds this spring. If he can't be even be sure of that, then how can he in good faith commit to friends from his native Canada?

Team Canada is saving him a roster spot. It likely will be pretty close to the March 8 WBC opener before Votto finally decides whether to play.

“Your first injury's hell, man,” Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker was saying early Thursday morning. “Your first injury and surgery, it's as much mental as it is physical.”

When we last saw Votto in 2012, the left knee had reduced him to a singles hitter. He tore a cartilage sliding during a game in San Francisco last June 29, pushed through the Reds' next seven games and then finally had the test that discovered a torn cartilage.

So he underwent surgery, then needed a second operation last Aug. 11 to remove a piece of floating cartilage.

He returned to the lineup Sept. 5, and though he hit .316 for the month with a .505 on-base percentage, he had no homers.

Fact is, he has not homered since last June 24.

“I was very far away from 100 percent,” Votto, 29, says of his post-surgery return in 2012. “I did the best I could.

“I did the very best I could.”

In some ways -- on-base percentage in particular -- what he did was amazing.

In others, he was only a shell of his 2010 NL MVP self.

He agrees with his manager that the first knee surgery is not pleasant.

“You certainly take fewer things for granted on the field,” Votto says. “You're more aware of your fragility.

“If you like the game, then you miss it. And I do enjoy my job, so I missed it. It reminds me of why I should be grateful to do what I do for a living.”

His lack of power upon his return, no doubt, reminds the Reds of why they should be grateful when the first baseman to whom they committed $225 million over 10 years is at full strength.

Whether that moment is now, it is still difficult to say.

“We don't know, man,” Baker says. “It's too early. So far, it's been great. That's all you can go on.

“I can't predict what's going to happen in the future. But the further he's away from it, the less apprehensive he'll be. I had knee injuries, too, and the further you get away from it, the more you won't even think about it.

“At first you're thinking about every move. Then after awhile it becomes a natural move and you don't worry about it.”

Working himself back into elite-player status has been an education for Votto.

“I'd say the initial process, there were bumps along the road,” he says. “It was frustrating when it would swell, or if the swelling wouldn't subside.

“It was frustrating not to be able to tap into the flexibility you want to, or that I would have liked to.

“I'd say just not feeling like I did before was really a challenge to me, a new experience.”

Though he still sounds tentative regarding his knee, Votto says he is not concerned because “I just do the best I can with the day that's presented in front of me.”

Intelligent and clear-thinking as ever, he says a guy can get into trouble having too many goals and expectations.

“I feel like I've progressed toward health, toward having a healthy set of legs,” he says. “I'm just really enjoying being able to play closer to what I view as 100 percent right now.”

Mostly, the worst of it should be past. The dynamic player he once was should re-emerge. Fans in the outfield again should start anticipating home-run balls.

“It feels good,” Votto says. “It doesn't feel like a newborn's knee, that's for sure.

“But I'm good.”

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