CINCINNATI — When Joey Votto comes to the plate at Great American Ball Park, the Rolling Stones' "Paint it Black'' plays over the ballpark's speakers. It's a tough song for a tough town, and the Reds' fans love it.
Only one thing could make it better: If Votto was at the top of his game, and had a reason to do his own little Mick Jagger strut. That's not happening these days.
Since spending seven weeks on the disabled list with a torn medial meniscus in his left knee, which required an unexpected second piece of surgery, the 2010 National League Most Valuable Player has turned into a pussycat. Maybe they should play some Christopher Cross or John Legend when he comes to bat Thursday, with the season hanging on it.
Votto was 2-for-5 with a pair of singles Wednesday, when the Giants pounded emergency starter Mike Leake for five runs en route to an 8-3 victory, evening the NL Division Series at two games apiece. He hasn't homered since June 24, a streak of 143 at-bats, all of which have been leading to the biggest game of his career.
"That's a very good ballclub over there,'' said Votto, who was among the last men out of the Reds' clubhouse. "We really shouldn't be surprised we're playing a five game, to be honest.''
Matt Cain faces Mat Latos in the deciding Game 5 on Thursday, and all the momentum is on the visitors' side.
The series swung toward the Giants on Tuesday, when they won Game 3 with only four hits, thanks to the stubbornness of Ryan Vogelsong and a bullpen that in the last two games has allowed one run in 111/3 innings. It helps when you can use $44 million worth of pitchers in one game, as Bruce Bochy did in Game 4.
Barry Zito started but lasted only 22/3 innings. He was relieved by two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, who held the Reds to one run in 41/3 innings. He got credit for the victory, raising his career postseason record to 5-1.
"Whether it's (Lincecum) or somebody else, they have a lot of games out there,'' Reds center fielder Drew Stubbs said. "It has to be nice for Bruce Bochy to stick (Lincecum) out there for a few innings.''
You could understand if Reds manager Dusty Baker might have felt a little overwhelmed. He was reeling after a strained oblique muscle forced Johnny Cueto off the roster.
The Reds had to choose between adding Leake or using Latos on three days' rest, which then would have forced Game 2 winner Bronson Arroyo to be used on short rest in Game 5. After long meetings between general manager Walt Jocketty, Baker and the Reds' medical staff, they opted for Door No. 1, even though it means Cueto will not be able to pitch in the NL Championship Series if his team advances.
"You have to get to the next series first,'' Baker said. "It was a very tough decision. (We) could have gone with Latos today. We went with the fresh body.''
Leake worked into the fifth inning, and the Giants scored in three of those innings, surpassing their total (four runs) from the first three games, when they hit .126. Angel Pagan's leadoff homer in the first set the tone, and Gregor Blanco followed with another in the second.
Pablo Sandoval went 3-for-4 and drove in three runs, two on a homer against reliever Jose Arredondo. Lincecum wasn't quite the same guy who won two games in the 2010 World Series against Texas but he provided quite a presence.
"It was unbelievable to watch him go out there and do what he does best,'' Pagan said. "It was fun to watch … tonight was his night.''
This is supposed to be Votto's time. That's why the Reds signed him to a 10-year, $225-million contract extension in April. He doesn't complain about his health but scouts say it's clear he's not able to use his legs to generate the force that allowed him to hit 37 homers two years ago. He has 14 this year.
And one more day to do something special.
He spent a long time getting treatment on his knee after Game 4, and it was clear that he also had his head cleared before he headed home.
"I think we've gotten a hard dose of reality,'' said Votto, who hit .337 this season. "When you go up two games, I'm not saying it came easy, but you're not expecting that, not on the West Coast. The way they have come back is very impressive.''
Votto knows Thursday will go a long way toward defining the success or failure of this season for the NL Central champs.
"It's a fantastic opportunity for these guys to learn a lot, to take the experience, overcome a lot," Votto said. "That's the way you become a world champ. To be honest, I'm very happy about this opportunity.''
As far as the Reds' organization and their fans, he might be the only one.