07/12/10 7:17 PM ET
Reds' infield fortifying National League roster
All-Star reliever Rhodes calls group 'best' of his 18-year career
By Lyle Spencer / MLB.com
Three-fourths of the Cincinnati infield -- Joey Votto, Scott Rolen and Brandon Phillips -- will be fortifying the National League's roster for Tuesday's All-Star Game at Angel Stadium.
For reliever Arthur Rhodes, an All-Star for the first time at 40 who appreciates the experience as perhaps no other star can, these three athletes and the shortstop who completes them -- Orlando Cabrera -- are without equal.
"Our infield is the best," said Rhodes, who speaks from 18 years of experience at the big league level. "Scott Rolen at third, Orlando Cabrera at shortstop, Brandon Phillips at second and Joey Votto at first ... it doesn't get any better than that.
"Personally, being a guy who tries to keep the ball down and try to get them to hit it to my infield, I couldn't be in better hands."
Rolen, the leader by virtue of age and experience of the three infielders representing Cincinnati on manager Charlie Manuel's roster, said he doesn't like to be drawn into comparisons. But he clearly sees this quartet, with free-agent Cabrera bringing an edge with his toughness and vocal leadership, as a unit with few equals.
"We have a great infield," Rolen said. "I've played on a lot of great infields, but we do have a great infield.
"Obviously, Brandon Phillips can do a lot of things. Joey doesn't get enough credit for his defense. Orlando's been solid all the way through. We saw it in my time in St. Louis, where a lot of pitchers had a desire to get the ball on the ground and in play."
Rolen, 35, is an All-Star for the sixth time. For Votto and Phillips, this is their maiden voyage along with Rhodes, one of the game's best stories this season with his superlative work out of manager Dusty Baker's bullpen.
"This is the best infield I've played on," Phillips said. "Look at all those Gold Gloves we have. Rolen's got a bunch, O.C.'s got two, I've got one. O.C. has helped me a lot, learning the game a little better, how to catch the ball, position myself, things like that. He's been around."
Votto's bat has made his reputation. He comes to the Midsummer Classic batting .314 with 22 homers and 60 RBIs, a threat in all three Triple Crown categories. He's also among the leaders in slugging percentage at .589.
Votto's performance was acknowledged with 13.7 million votes in claiming the NL Final Vote balloting by fans.
"It's getting hard to ignore him," Reds right fielder Jay Bruce said. "He's arguably one of the top three hitters in the game. He's getting better in all areas -- defense, offense, running the bases. He's been great. He goes about the game in a 100-percent professional manner."
Consistency also defines Votto, who reached base in a Major League season-high 41 straight games before the streak ended on July 4.
"He's a different dude," Baker said. "He's very respectful on the field. He's very honorable. He's an exceptionally clean liver. He takes care of himself. And I'm proud to say he's Canadian. That's a compliment to me. Most of the Canadian dudes I've met in sports are usually pretty respectful generally."To get Votto into the All-Star Game, the Reds mobilized quickly and got out the vote. Almost every player taped television spots urging fans to "Vote Votto." On Wednesday in New York before their game, they showed solidarity for Votto by wearing red T-shirts with the same message during batting practice. "I'm enjoying [the team chemistry] more this year," Votto said. "It's a lot more laid back, but intense when it needs to be. We don't have any cliques."
Rolen is back at the Midsummer Classic for the first time since 2006. He did not get into that game and also missed the '05 game because of a shoulder injury.At 35, Rolen is having a renaissance season after struggling with injuries and declining production. He is hitting .290 at the break with 17 homers and 57 RBIs, slugging 548. "He's healthy and happy, you can tell," Baker said. "It's big, especially at this point in his career when he's done just about everything you can do. He's having a good time with it." The Reds were questioned last season when they acquired Rolen from Toronto for three players. Cincinnati was out of contention at the time, but was thinking ahead to 2010 and beyond. During the winter, he was signed to an extension through 2012. Rolen wanted to come to Cincinnati, because of its relatively close proximity to his residence in Carmel, Ind. "It's been great for me and great for my family," Rolen said. "I'm very comfortable here. I'm a big believer that if players are happy and comfortable in their situation, it brings out better performance from them." In the three previous games for the NL from 2002-04, Rolen was 2-for-6 (.333). After a slow start in April, batting only .236, Phillips has come alive and brings a .294 average to the break with 12 homers and 30 RBIs. He erupted in June, batting .373 with 41 hits and 22 runs scored. Phillips was selected by Manuel to replace the injured Chase Utley. Along with his dazzling plays around second base, Phillips has been a versatile cog in Baker's lineup. He started the season as the cleanup hitter, moved up to the second spot in May and was the leadoff hitter by the end of June. "I think we took off when I started leading off," Phillips said.
In 2007, Phillips was a 30-30 man in homers and steals, claiming a Gold Glove as well."Brandon has definitely played like an All-Star," Baker said. "This isn't the first year he's played like an All-Star. I think this is his best overall year." Rhodes tied a Major League record this season with 33 straight appearances without allowing a run, totaling 30 innings. It was snapped on June 29 against the Phillies. Rhodes is 3-3 with a 1.54 ERA in 41 appearances, striking out 32 in 35 innings.
"It's one of the best years I've seen out of anybody in the bullpen," Baker said.He is carrying on in the memory of his 5-year-son Jordan, who died in December 2008 from an undisclosed illness. Before each appearance, Rhodes writes the initials "J.R." on the back of the mound. "He's going to be there with me at the All-Star Game," Rhodes said. "I've waited a long time for this.
"This ranks No. 1 in my career to me."
Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.