Joey Votto confirms he'll play for Canada at WBC

Cincinnati Reds star Joey Votto has confirmed that he will play for Canada at the upcoming World Baseball Classic.

Reds star's participation was up in the air

Joey Votto of Cincinnati is coming off knee surgery. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

Joey Votto wanted to say sorry, but only for making everyone wait on the best news Canada has had ahead of the World Baseball Classic.

The Cincinnati Reds first baseman will be in Canada's lineup after an uncertain spring training kept him from committing to the international tournament. Votto missed 48 games last season with a knee injury, but on Monday he finally put to rest fears that Canada would be without the heart of its offence.

"I was very clear to everyone that I needed the games to make sure my knee was healthy and heading in the right direction," he said at Reds training camp. "I feel confident in it and confident in my commitment. I feel I can comfortably play."

The Toronto native needed to be sure of that before saying yes to Canada. 

"I've never been hurt before," said Votto. "I wanted a little more of a grace period before the tournament to make sure I'm ready for my primary commitment to the Cincinnati Reds."

The news brought a sense of relief to Canada's training camp, which opened Monday morning.

Earlier in the day the team learned Chicago White Sox reliever Jesse Crain was out with a shoulder injury, leaving the bullpen without a veteran arm. Last week, Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin opted out of the roster, which was already missing several veterans, including outfielder Jason Bay and pitchers Ryan Dempster and Jeff Francis.

Losing Votto would have been another major blow, but he was committed to playing for Canada. Once he decided he was healthy and had the Reds' blessing, there was no way he would miss the WBC.

"I grew up with a few of the players on the team and that goes beyond any of the Team Canada stuff," said Votto. "These are the same guys from my hometown or within a few minutes of where I grew up, you very rarely get a chance to play with your neighbour."

Best player in the roster

Votto, the 2010 National League MVP, is a career .316 hitter, with 133 homers and 457 RBIs. Manager Ernie Whitt said the 29-year-old's importance to the team couldn't be understated.

"I would be lying if I said there wasn't nervousness, but we're really excited to have our No. 3 hitter in there," said Whitt. "He means a lot to this ballclub. So we're really thrilled about that."

Votto will report to Canada on Thursday, missing a pair of exhibition games with Milwaukee on Tuesday and Cincinnati on Wednesday. Canada opens Pool D play against Italy in Scottsdale, Ariz., on Friday before moving to Chase Field in Phoenix to face Mexico on March 9 and the United States on March 10.

Whitt said Votto and Minnesota Twins veteran Justin Morneau would likely swap games at first base and designated hitter, a plan Morneau said suits him fine.

"It's big, obviously," said Morneau, who added he had stayed in contact with Votto in the weeks leading up to the tournament. "Not only is (Votto) Canadian, but one of the best players in the tournament no matter where he's from. To have him on our team will hopefully make a huge difference in advancing and going further than we've gone."

Canada went winless in two games in 2009, losing 6-5 to the United States and 6-2 to Italy, but Votto was a difference-maker before the offence went cold. He led the team with five hits in nine at-bats and one homer in two games.

Votto said in '09 he slept in his mother's house and revelled in being able to commute to Toronto's Rogers Centre, the ballpark that inspired him to play the game. Four years later, he's happy to play with some teammates he's known his whole career.

"I'm just as excited to play with Justin (Morneau) as I am to play with Shawn Hill, who I played with at 16 years old at the Etobicoke Rangers facility, or John Suomi, who I've been hitting with since I was 14 years old," said Votto. "These are guys who inspired me to do what I want to do."

It's coming full-circle, Votto said.

"It will be like I'm a kid again, like I'm back in high school learning from them," he said.

The Votto news helped soften the blow of losing another veteran. Crain, a native of Toronto who pitched out of the bullpen at the '06 and '09 tournaments, suffered a shoulder injury at the White Sox training camp.

"It's a big arm," said Whitt. "There's no question, but again our wish is for Jesse to get healthy so he can continue his career at the major-league level. But we have some other arms that are out there. It just shortens our bullpen a little bit. But we'll get through it."