Giants need Buster Posey to perform

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While Jonathan Lucroy, Devin Mesoraco and Miguel Montero were making up the National League catching contingent at the All-Star Game last week, Buster Posey spent three days at home with his family in the San Francisco area. Posey and his wife, Kristen, have twins who'll celebrate their third birthday in August, so the term "break" is relative.

No matter how much time Posey spent chasing rug rats and watching "The Wiggles," he used the brief hiatus from baseball to maximum effect. He hit the pause button, let a few aches heal and has looked rested and refreshed with 10 hits in 23 at-bats for a .435 average since his return. The San Francisco Giants, meanwhile, have won four of five games out of the chute to take a one-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West.

San Francisco's ability to outlast the Dodgers in the second half could hinge in large part on whether Posey can keep producing at a similarly high level in August and September. The more Buster hits, the better the Giants look.

It's unrealistic for any big league team to expect a single player to "carry" the offense for weeks on end. That's especially true of catchers, who have to deal with the physical rigors of the position and the time and energy required in handling a pitching staff. But Posey, 27, has the talent and demeanor to multitask with the best of them. The Giants showed their faith in him when they signed him to a nine-year, $167 million extension in March 2013.

"As a player, he's [beyond his years]," San Francisco pitcher Tim Hudson said. "He has the aura of a veteran, and he's looked upon as a veteran in the locker room even though he hasn't been around too long. People respect him all over the game, and that's a testament to him as a player and a person. By his standards, he probably expects more than what he's done this year. But for 95 percent of the whole league, he's having a hell of a year."

With 100 games down and 62 to go, Posey is a staple among MLB catchers in multiple offensive categories. He ranks among baseball's top five at the position in hits (94), batting average (.286), doubles (18), homers (11), RBIs (53) and OPS (.783), and he's seventh in WAR at 2.2.

But the numbers are more solid than spectacular, and Posey has dealt with a variety of factors that have prevented him from going on an extended roll. He had some back issues that led to fatigue in his legs earlier this season, and his production at home has suffered from the spacious dimensions and cool nights at AT&T Park, where he sports a .670 OPS, compared to his .912 on the road.

Posey also has hit into his share of buzzard's luck. He's 14th in the majors with a line drive percentage of 25.9, and 111th with a .292 batting average on balls in play.

"If he was a little luckier, he could be hitting .300 or .320," Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens said. "But that's the game. All we really concentrate on is for him to have good at-bats, hit the ball hard and stay within himself and not try to do what the critics want him to do -- which is hit .340 and hit 40 homers and drive in 150 runs. Nobody is doing that anymore."

The 2012 precedent

Two years ago, Posey got off to a perfectly fine start with a .289 average and an .820 OPS in his first 77 games. Then the All-Star break came and went and he staged a full-scale, Mike Piazza-caliber assault on opposing pitchers. Posey posted a .385/.456/.646 line in the second half and won the batting title when teammate Melky Cabrera relinquished his claim to the crown after a failed drug test. He became the first catcher to win a National League MVP award since Johnny Bench in 1972 and the first player since Frank Robinson to win a batting title, MVP award and World Series ring in the same season.

That early success raised the bar and amplified how miserable the 2013 season was. The Giants finished third in the division with a 76-86 record, and the disappointment gnawed at Posey all winter. Giants general manager Brian Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy set a competitive tone at the top, and no one in the San Francisco clubhouse accepted the rationale of: "Hey, this just isn't our year."

"Last year was tough, and it served as a lot of motivation for everybody coming into this season," Posey said. "I've been fortunate to be on two teams that have won the World Series. I've had a chance to go through that and see how much fun it is and the memories you make going through that process. No matter how many times you do it, you're always going to have an itch to do that again. That's the focus for everybody here."

The Giants asserted themselves from Opening Day this season behind a lineup that showed depth and big power. They're 41-15 when they hit at least one home run and 15-29 when they fail to go deep. Their .732 winning percentage when they homer is the highest in the National League. But the Giants responded poorly when center fielder and leadoff man Angel Pagan went down with a back injury in mid-June, and they lost 17 of their next 26 games going into the break. Pagan has begun taking swings from both sides of the plate, but the Giants aren't expecting him back until sometime in August.

"A lot is said about Pagan and our record with him not in the lineup," Bochy said. "Well, if everybody else is still doing their thing, it softens the blow of losing [him]. When we hit a little skid there, everybody stopped hitting. We were a tale of two teams offensively."

Posey, at the center of it all in the No. 3 or 4 spot in the batting order, is tougher for opponents to avoid when Hunter Pence gets on base in the leadoff spot and Pablo Sandoval and Michael Morse are producing alongside him in the middle of the lineup. But two bedrock elements of his game are evident regardless of how he's swinging. One is plate discipline. The other is his ability to change course midpitch.

"We have a lot of chasers out of the zone in our lineup, and he's not one of them," Meulens said. "He also has a tremendous ability to stop when a pitch is off the plate or coming in on him and he doesn't want to swing. It's uncanny. I remember watching Shannon Stewart back in the day with the [ Toronto] Blue Jays. He had a great ability to stop the barrel from crossing the plate when he didn't want to swing. Buster is similar. Certain guys will start their swing and swing through it and they can't stop. Buster has a great eye to begin with and a great ability to stop. That's why he doesn't strike out a lot."

Can Posey find a way to elevate his game even when August arrives and it's hot and humid and he's gassed from all that squatting and punishment behind the plate? Bochy has tried to keep him fresh by giving him 14 starts at first base, and Posey is aware of all the options available to help him compensate for fatigue. But he typically refrains from switching to a lighter bat in August and September or cutting down on the weightlifting to a noticeable degree. The exhilaration of playing for a contending team is enough to push him across the finish line.

"I've been in it when we were right in the middle of the race, and last year when we weren't," Posey said. "It makes it much, much easier when you're competing for the division and you get in the playoffs. The aches and the fatigue don't seem as magnified when you have that final goal in mind."

A small fraternity

Good two-way catchers are awfully hard to find these days. Lucroy, who's in the NL MVP discussion, certainly qualifies. Yadier Molina obviously did before he went down for eight to 12 weeks with a thumb injury. Salvador Perez has been to two All-Star Games at age 24, and Mesoraco and Derek Norris have put up impressive numbers in a little more than 200 at-bats each this summer. Brian McCann also belongs in the conversation, even though he's had a slow adjustment period in his transition from Atlanta to New York after signing an $85 million contract with the Yankees.

Hudson, who played with McCann in Atlanta before calling Posey a teammate in San Francisco, sees similarities in the way the two catchers handle the responsibility of running a staff and producing runs in the middle of the batting order.

"It takes a special person to be able to do that," Hudson said. "These guys get beat up. They get crushed. They get hit by foul balls and foul tips, and then they might have to lead off or come up the next inning with runners in scoring position. It's such a juggling thing. But both of them are pretty great about not letting their at-bats, whether good or bad, affect how they handle their pitchers. You have to separate yourself from each deal and go about it as if you're two different players."

Despite his dual responsibilities, Posey remains the same person -- a baseball rat with old-school sensibilities and a knack for avoiding drama (that 2011 home-plate collision with Scott Cousins notwithstanding). He has a touch of Derek Jeter in him with his ability to instinctively do and say the right things and engender respect from teammates and opponents alike.

"Buster is very low-maintenance," Bochy said. "He's just a simple guy who comes out here, prepares himself well and wants to play."

The Giants have grown to love Posey for his levelheadedness and his consistency in the past 4½ seasons. If he can ratchet it up and conjure some of those 2012 memories during the next two or three months, they'll learn to love him even more.

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