CINCINNATI — Joey Votto put on the Viking helmet and cape. He felt right at home.
Votto homered and hit a go-ahead, two-run single in his return to the Reds‘ lineup after a 10-month absence that followed surgery, helping Cincinnati extend its longest winning streak in a decade to nine with a 5-4 victory over the Colorado Rockies on Monday night.
“Long time coming,” Votto said. “Ever since I’ve watched them put it on each other, I was thinking about how badly I want that on me because it’s tied to a winning moment, and that’s exactly — exactly — what this team’s about. This is a different energy than I’ve experienced in years, maybe in my entire career, the way these guys think about themselves and how hard they play. I wanted to be a part of this. We are all a part of this.”
Cincinnati took over the NL Central lead for the first time since early April, moving a half-game ahead of Milwaukee. The Reds are on their longest winning streak since taking 10 in a row from July 19-29, 2012.
“The energy of our team has been building,” Reds manager David Bell said. “It doesn’t surprise me. It impresses me.”
Returning 10 months to the day after surgery on his left biceps and rotator cuff, Votto was greeted with a standing ovation when he walked to the plate in the second inning. He took off his helmet and waved to the crowd, then tapped it against his heart before lining out to center.
“The crowd reaction was surprising,” Votto said. “Not to underestimate them, but you don’t expect that. I feel the same way toward them. For them to reciprocate means a great deal to me. It was a memorable experience.”
He drove a first-pitch, belt-high fastball from Austin Gomber about a dozen rows into the right-field seats for a 3-1 lead in the fifth. After circling the bases on his 343rd home run, Votto emerged from the Reds dugout for a curtain call, wearing the celebratory Viking helmet and cape that have followed Cincinnati long balls this season.
“I played a long time and here I’m wearing a helmet and a cape,” Votto said. “It’s a team thing and it’s keeping me young. It was a daunting rehab and you have your doubts. I don’t want to be the odd person out. Every day there is someone doing something cool to help the team. If you’re not doing something, you don’t fit in. I just want to fit in.”
Votto, 39, had not homered since last Aug. 6 against Milwaukee’s Jake McGee, and had not played since Aug. 16.
“He just got himself ready,” Bell said. “He has been doing everything to be a part of our team. It meant a lot to our team. He felt a part of this the whole time but now it feels like it is supposed to. He is going to make us better.”
Votto’s two-run single to center off Jake Bird put the Reds ahead 5-4 in the sixth. The 2010 NL MVP went 2-for-3 with 3 RBIs.
“He’s a guy who should be applauded for what he’s done in this city,” Rockies manager Bud Black said. “He’s spent his entire career here, which is special in this day and age. That ovation was cool. Joey’s been a great player for a decade-plus. It was great to see the fans of Cincinnati recognize that.”
Votto had surgery on Aug. 19, ending a season in which he hit .205 with 11 homers and 41 RBIs. At the time of the operation, the Reds said they expected the six-time All-Star back by opening day.
“I feel much more like myself,” Votto said before the game. “I’m back to full health. Ten months is a long rehab. If I’m going to rejoin a winning ballclub, my responsibility is to be up to speed with them.”
He made his spring training debut on March 12 and hit .182 with one double and one RBI in eight games, then was put on the 10-day injured list and sent to Triple-A Louisville for a minor league injury rehabilitation assignment. Votto hit .184 with one homer and five RBIs through April 14, then was put on the 60-day IL in May 4.
He rejoined Louisville on June 3 and hit .182 with two homers and six RBIs in 12 additional games through Sunday with the Bats. Cincinnati activated him from the IL on Monday and placed right-hander Hunter Greene on the 15-day IL with right hip pain, a move retroactive to Sunday.
Bell said Votto will play often, but it will be a day-to-day decision based on matchups.
In the final season of a $251.5 million, 12-year contract, Votto is among 20 players with 8,000 or more plate appearances to hit .297 or better with an on-base percentage of at least .400 (.412) and a slugging percentage of at least .500 (.513).
The Reds have made the playoffs just once since 2013, when the postseason was expanded to 16 teams for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
“I’ve been witness to the culture in this clubhouse,” Votto said. “Things are changing for the better.”
Greene, a 23-year-old right-hander, is 2-4 with a 3.93 ERA in 14 starts with 100 strikeouts in 73⅓ innings
Right-hander Kevin Herget was designated for assignment to clear a spot for Votto on the 40-man roster.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.