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Votto Struggles to Get Back on the Field, XU Baseball Struggles Against the Big Boys

By Bill Peterson · June 3rd, 2009 · Sports
Torn ligaments and pulled muscles are everyday fare in sports. Injuries are part of life, especially in baseball, where real life happens every day.

It’s often been noted that baseball players take on the strangest injuries. It’s likely, though, that the same physical ailments, if not worse, often strike basketball and football players — the difference is that the baseball club plays every day.

The basketball or football player might endure a problem for two or three days without missing a single game. The same baseball player would lose two or three games.

Baseball players also spend much more time on the road, where a pitcher might bruise his hand banging on the wall of his hotel room asking the people next door to be quiet or a rookie might burn his chest ironing the shirt he’s wearing. A former San Francisco Giants player, Chris Brown, was said to have missed a game after complaining that he slept on an eye wrong.

The game also dictates that baseball players might miss time over nicks that ordinary people work through. A pitcher is more like a guitarist or a pianist than an athlete in his reliance on the fine movements of his fingers.

Any burn, cut or blister affecting the pitcher’s grip or feeling for his grip will at least make the game immensely more challenging, if it doesn’t render him entirely ineffective. When a player is that bad off, he should sit.

Pitchers are especially delicate, which is why the refrain that there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect has gained currency. On June 1, Edinson Volquez, who hadn’t pitched in two weeks because of back spasms, had to leave a game in St. Louis with numbness in his pinky and ring finger. Too much can go wrong.

It takes a superior athlete to learn new ways to move so he can play through injuries. One year, 1997, Barry Larkin basically had to work out a new way to carry off certain actions on the field because of leg problems.

Larkin experimented with ways to get around at shortstop, and his play suffered for it at times, but he finally played well when he could play at all. He couldn’t always play, though. He missed from mid-June to the start of August, came back and hit .317 for a month, then the Reds just sat him down in September because the club was going nowhere and Larkin needed to heal.

To make those kinds of physical adjustments, naturally, a player must be completely in tune with his body and senses, possessing near perfect proprioception and equilibrium. If all that is in place, the body can work up new ways to move, for at least a time.

That’s what makes Joey Votto’s trouble so worrying. His problem for the last month was a deficiency in the resources athletes can often tap to beat aches, pains and pulls. Votto has struggled with dizziness after an inner ear infection and flu limited him to three full games in a 17-game stretch last month.

The Reds put Votto on the 15-day disabled list May 31 due to “stress-related” issues. Addressing whether the ear infection is involved, General Manager Walt Jocketty told reporters, “It’s partly that. Let’s leave it at that.”

Not hearing from Votto about it, one imagines a number of problems wrought by inner ear infection. Any blockage of the ears is enough for maddening disorientation. Obviously, one wonders if the hearing is affected. And think about that pain. One of the best things about being an adult is that you don’t have so many ear aches.

If there’s pain involved, it’s got to be excruciating and worrisome. The man can’t be sleeping well. The medication might help with pain, but it’s got to be driving him wacky. That’s stressful.

It could be, also, that Votto is dealing with a problem less physical in essence. When Jocketty said Votto’s problem is “partly” the ear infection, it might just mean the ear infection is a contributor to a related problem, like pure emotional stress.

This week, the Reds are in St. Louis, where Khalil Greene is disabled with “social anxiety.” Greene said he’s having trouble coping with failure.

If coping is Votto’s problem, he can’t be coping with failure. The 24-year-old first baseman is among the league leaders with a .357 average. He has hit eight homers and gained high marks for his leadership on a young ball club.

Without Votto, the Reds would be under water right now because he was their only guy who could hit in April.

No one knows exactly what Votto is up against, except him and the Reds management. For the rest of us, he’s in the grip of a mystery ailment, which makes it scary.

A torn anterior cruciate ligament, we can process. An unknown set of conditions affecting the physical and mental state of his head makes us start thinking he’s in a deep hole.

We’ll know more in a couple of weeks. It is to be hoped that Votto will be back then, plying the career for which he has shown such promise.

It would be nice to stop worrying about him. Right now, it’s hard not to.

* * * * *

Xavier won a game last weekend in the NCAA baseball tournament, which is better than 16 other teams that didn’t. But it wasn’t in the cards for Xavier to advance past the regional tournament in Houston.

The teams that make it through the first weekend to the Sweet 16 all have five or six high quality pitchers. Xavier lost by scores of 16-8 to Kansas State and 12-5 to Rice. In between, the X-men beat Sam Houston State 9-6.

The teams that make it through the first weekend also tend to have made it that far in the recent past. The roster of 16 remaining teams includes a load of familiar names: Texas, Louisiana State, North Carolina, Clemson, Texas Christian, Cal State-Fullerton, Florida, Rice, Florida State and Arizona State among them.

Not surprisingly, all those teams played at home last weekend in regionals for which they were the hosts. Louisville, Mississippi and East Carolina also played at home last weekend and advanced. Thus, 13 of the 16 teams remaining advanced through double-elimination tournaments on their home fields. The other three home teams (Cal-Irvine, Georgia Tech and Oklahoma) were eliminated in the championship round.

Outside a couple little oddities, the first round always goes pretty well according to form. Last weekend Texas beat Boston College 3-2 in 25 innings, the longest game in college baseball history. The next day, Florida State knocked out Ohio State 37-6. Those are first weekend oddities. But Florida State and Texas won, which aren’t oddities.

Now, though, is when the tournament turns truly interesting. Last year, Fresno State made an improbable run to the title, staving off elimination six times. Three years ago, no one saw Oregon State coming before the Beavers won the tournament back to back.

Of 40 teams that have hosted Super Regionals in the last five years — that is, of all the top eight overall seeds remaining at this point — none has won the College World Series.

At this point, it’s a wide-open competition. Someday, maybe, Xavier can get to this point.

CONTACT BILL PETERSON: letters@citybeat.com



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