The standing ovation that rolled like a wave down the right-field line at Scottsdale Stadium, following Buster Posey as he strolled toward the bullpen for a quick warmup session in mid-March, said it all.
Where Buster goes, goes the excitement. The hope. The unbridled optimism.
In fact, here’s the bottom line: Where Buster goes, go the Giants.
That’s a lot of pressure on one man. Especially a 25-year-old man who has yet to play an entire big-league season from start to finish. A man yet to make an All-Star team, even.
This isn’t your garden-variety young ballplayer, though. This is, in every baseball sense as it relates to the Giants, the Golden Child.
With Posey, 2010 World Series champions.
Without Posey, 2011 also-rans, out of the playoffs entirely.
Say it again: Where Buster goes, go the Giants.
Laid to waste for the year by a wicked collision at home plate in the late innings of an all-too-memorable game late in May, Posey was carried off the field at AT&T Park that night. And while a variety of other factors contributed to the ultimate demise of the 2011 Giants, their title defense was essentially shattered right along with Posey’s left leg and ankle.
The strength and durability of Posey’s ankle and leg, then, are the unquestioned keys to the 2012 quest for redemption in the form of another trip to the postseason. Another roll of the dice that one of recent history’s most impressive pitching staffs can make do with a suspect offense under the white-hot spotlight that accompanies high-stakes hardball played in the crisp autumn air.
That’s the thing about Posey, who’d probably swallow his own vomit if he read this piece. Like it or not, Buster and Buster alone makes the San Francisco offense — with any lineup permutation you’d like to offer — seem whole. Or passable, at the very least.
“We are and were,” concedes Giants general manager Brian Sabean, “a dramatically different club without Buster in the middle of the lineup.”
It’s borderline unfair, this emphasis. Consider that as recently as that mid-March day on which Posey made his highly anticipated return to the field by starting and playing two pedestrian innings in a Cactus League game, Posey was the subject of an interesting assessment at the hands of a longtime major-league scout who questioned the superstar label with which Posey already has been affixed in the Bay Area.
“I’m not saying he’s not legit in every way, talent-wise,” said the scout. “But he wasn’t killing the league when he got hurt last year, and it was a couple months into his second season.
“Does he have what you need to be a superstar? Yeah. Sure. But a hot [second] half [in 2010] as a rookie is all we really have on the guy, and you’re telling me he’s the key to a team that’s got Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Brian Wilson and Pablo Sandoval?”
Uh, yeah. He is. And nobody in the Giants’ clubhouse will openly challenge that.
“We’ve got a lot of nice pieces,” Giants manager Bruce Bochy said before camp opened, ticking off the names of newcomers such as outfielders Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan, bounce-back candidates Freddy Sanchez, Brandon Belt and Aubrey Huff, and other members of the deep, versatile pitching staff.
“But every team usually has that one piece that makes everything else kind of make sense,” Bochy added. “And I don’t think there’s any doubt that for us, that guy is Buster. We need him in there as much as possible. We know it.”
1. Buster’s bat
As evidenced by last season, the offense simply doesn’t work without it. It’s got the type of presence that makes an entire team, franchise and fan base feel better about itself.
While we’re at it, let’s add Sergio Romo’s elbow, too. Both are cause for mild concern. Any lengthy DL stays for the top two relievers will cripple this club.
3. A hero
Every title team needs at least one guy to stun everyone with an out-of-nowhere season, a la Andres Torres in ’10. Who’s it gonna be? And about that bench …
There was no better way to start the year than the Giants receiving their World Series rings as the buzz from the title run carried into 2011.
The year took a sudden detour when the Florida Marlins’ Scott Cousins barreled into Buster Posey, tearing up his left leg and ankle, ending the catcher’s season.
The injury bug struck again as Freddy Sanchez suffered a torn labrum and capsule in his right shoulder and the issue has lingered into the start of 2012.
Despite a tumultuous first half, five Giants, including starting pitchers Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and surprise Ryan Vogelsong, were named NL All-Stars.
Midseason acquisition Carlos Beltran missed two weeks with a hand and wrist injury and Arizona overtook the Giants in the NL West during that span.
San Francisco’s fate in the NL West was sealed in the Arizona desert on Sept. 23 when the Diamondbacks beat the Giants 3-1 to lock up the division title.