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THE FANS WORE ORANGE SHIRTS, AND THE LITTLE KIDS HAD FAUX-HAWKS, AND THEY LINED UP TWO-DEEP AT THE CHAIN-LINK fence behind the rightfield wall at Scottsdale Stadium, craning their necks for a glimpse of what was happening in the bullpens beneath the bleachers. It was the morning of Feb. 19, 2012, the day of the first workout for the Giants' pitchers and catchers. The club's catchers were in the midst of a drill typical for such a day. They received pitches and then sprang to their feet as if about to gun down a base stealer at second, their knees lubricating after a long winter. With each pop of the mitt, though, the fans shouted encouragement and raised their arms to take blurry snaps on their phones. That was because one of the catchers participating in the drill, looking more agile than anyone else, was 24-year-old Buster Posey.
Posey, still so smooth-cheeked and clear-eyed that he looks as if he's just come from a photo session for his Lee County (Ga.) High yearbook, did not yet have a regular-season's worth of games on his résumé (he had played in 160 of them), but he had already accumulated a career's worth of experience, in all of its polarity. As a rookie in 2010 he had hit .305 with 18 home runs and sparked the Giants to their first title in 56 years. Then on May 25, 2011, Marlins pinch hitter Scott Cousins had plowed into him on a play at the plate, fracturing Posey's left leg, cruelly ending his season and initiating a grueling rehabilitation. On that cool morning in Scottsdale nine months later Posey's catching—and his powerful display during batting practice ("Four-seam coming at 55, it's not tough to square it up," Posey would humbly say)—suggested something of extreme importance for the Giants, as put into words by one particularly sonorous fan: "You're back, baby!"
Manager Bruce Bochy confirmed that sentiment. "He looks like he's over it," Bochy said that day. "He's healed."
So, too, seemed to be the Giants, whose dreams of a repeat in 2011 had been shattered along with their precocious leader's leg. San Francisco's pitching staff—which ranked second in the majors in starters' (3.28) and relievers' ERA (3.04)—kept the Giants competitive for a while; they were in first place in the NL West as late as Aug. 9. Eventually, though, Posey's absence caught up with them. They finished the season trailing the Diamondbacks by eight games.
So, the key for San Francisco in 2012? "I think it's obvious to everybody, inside or outside the organization," said G.M. Brian Sabean. "Buster needs to return to form." Posey's task was to recapture his preternatural poise in directing a bearded, long-haired, tattooed, excitable pitching staff that Sabean admitted was "kind of eccentric, individually and collectively." Or as Tim Lincecum, the two-time Cy Young winner, put it, "He doesn't have a problem talking to me as if I'm just another f------ rookie kid, which is refreshing."
More essential, though, was not what Posey might do behind the plate, but beside it. Bereft of their cleanup hitter for the majority of 2011, the Giants ranked last in the NL in runs scored, squeezing out just 3.5 per game. That average included a 2.7 mark during an 11--18 August, when their season completely fell apart. Sabean declined to pursue a power bat in the off-season, instead trading for outfielders Melky Cabrera and Angel Pagan, whom Bochy described as "nice players, catalyst-type guys." Sabean's off-season strategy was in part dictated by his desire to return his pitching staff more or less intact, but mostly by the prospect of Posey's return.
"It's like, Buster's back to Buster," said Lincecum on that February morning. "It's almost like last year didn't happen."
Almost. As good as Posey looked in practice, Bochy was not sure if Posey's still-healing body would be able to tolerate the strain of catching regularly. Posey couldn't know how quickly he could return, either. "I want to get back in there, but that's something we're going to play by ear," he said of his chances of playing in the first exhibition game. "If it is something I can do, I'll be fired up about that. But if not, it's not the end of the world."
If Posey proved unfit to play, it would not qualify as an apocalyptic event to the average citizen of Planet Earth. To the Giants and their orange-draped fans, though, it would count as something close.