SARASOTA, Fla. -- It was a little game within the game. Manager Dusty Baker challenged young sluggers Joey Votto and Jay Bruce to try and get through Spring Training without striking out. "I didn't take that to heart, but I think it's kind of a fun little game to play," Votto said on Thursday.
Bruce notched his one and only strikeout on Saturday. Votto struck out for the first time on Wednesday, a punch out in the second inning vs. the Red Sox, and in Thursday's game vs. the Yankees. "The first thing Jay said over the phone when I spoke to him was, 'You struck out, huh?'" I go, 'Yeah, thanks buddy,'" said Votto, who took a called strike three in his third plate appearance on Thursday. "He struck out on a check swing a while back. He was paying attention and making sure I didn't go through the whole thing without striking out." The challenge aside, Baker still wants all of his younger hitters -- including Votto -- to be more aggressive at the plate. "He needs to swing some more. I talked to him about that," Baker said. "Strikeouts isn't the criteria. I think a lot of this on-base percentage is taking away some of the aggressiveness of some of the young kids to swing the bat. Most of the time with young guys, you have to put handcuffs on them not to swing. "I really hate the called third-strike fastball. It means you're guessing or you're not ready to hit." Votto is off to a slow start, batting .188 (3-for-16) in eight games. The 24-year-old is competing with veteran Scott Hatteberg to be the Reds' starting first baseman. "I am an aggressive hitter, but it's just taken me a little bit of time and a few at-bats to get comfortable up there," Votto said. "It takes me a little while to get my timing down and my swing ready to go. I'm not one of those guys that kind of pick up and right away hammer the fastball." Vets be aggressive, too: Baker doesn't just want the young guys to be aggressive. He was asked about left fielder Adam Dunn, who is a selective hitter with a high OBP. "Dunn's not a kid. He's not old, but he's not a kid," Baker said. "I bet you he gets better. He's from Texas. There's not a cow in Texas if he doesn't get better. He wants to get better." Harang smooth: Reds starter Aaron Harang pitched three scoreless innings in Thursday's 12-8 win over the Yankees. The only two hits he allowed were doubles by Johnny Damon, who hit a first-inning sinker from Harang for a broken-bat hit to left field in the second. In the third, Damon smoked a curveball for a double to right field.
But Damon never scored. It was no tough feat in the first when Harang retired sluggers Bobby Abreu and Jason Giambi."Especially in that situation, you have a couple of the big hitters coming up looking to drive in a run, I was able to leave him there," Harang said. Through two spring starts, Harang is 1-0 with a 3.60 ERA in five innings. Injury report: Bruce is slated to return to the lineup on Friday night. It will be his first game since he suffered a mild left quadriceps strain on Sunday. Lefty Bill Bray threw 25 pitches against Reds hitters in a live batting-practice setting on Thursday morning. A sore left shoulder has kept Bray out of the mix during camp, but he said he was able to use all of his pitches. "Everything felt good," said Bray, who is scheduled to pitch live BP again on Sunday. "It definitely made me feel better to throw off of the mound." Transactions: Bray and reliever Gary Majewski signed one-year contracts on Thursday. Every member of the 40-man roster is now under contract for 2008. Sightings: Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench, now a Reds consultant, mingled through the clubhouse on Thursday morning. Former Reds outfielder Eric Davis also arrived in camp and will work as a guest instructor. Former interim manager Pete Mackanin was on the field during batting practice. Mackanin, who guided the Reds to a 41-39 record after Jerry Narron's dismissal, is now a scout for the visiting Yankees. Several Reds, including Brandon Phillips and pitching coach Dick Pole, came over to say hello to Mackanin. No storm for 'Stormy': Reliever David Weathers made quick work of the Yankees in his one inning. Called in for the fifth, Weathers only needed eight pitches to retire the side in order. "What a game," Weathers said. "Sunday in Dunedin, [Fla.], I feel great and give up a homer and two runs. Today, I feel like trash and eight pitches." Up next: The Reds and Pirates will meet twice on Friday in split-squad games. The 1:05 p.m. ET game in Sarasota will have prospect Johnny Cueto making his first start for the Reds against John Van Benschoten. At 7:05 p.m. ET in Bradenton, Fla., Bronson Arroyo will pitch for Cincinnati against Paul Maholm.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.