St. LOUIS -- After the final out hits his glove, San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey walks back to the dugout with his mask in his hand. It's a familiar but often overlooked sight on the baseball field: A catcher's quick change from team quarterback to hitter as he takes the bulky catching gear off and prepares for his next at bat.
For many teams, the opposing catcher is not the guy in the lineup pitchers worry about facing. They earn their keep with their defense behind the plate. But this year, four catchers -- Carlos Ruiz, Joe Mauer, Yadier Molina and Posey -- are batting above .300. Could it be that 2012 is the year of the catcher?
Facing Lance Lynn with runners on first and second in the top of the first, Posey hit his 18th homer of the season. It was another stellar performance, strengthening what could become an MVP season for Posey.
After missing most of the 2011 season from an ankle injury, the result of a horrific collision at home plate, the 2012 All-Star is, as Giants manager Bruce Bochy describes, "one of the elite young players in the game."
At the start of the season Posey was just excited to be back on the field.
"I wanted to be back with the guys and be able to compete again," Posey said about the first few months of 2012. "The injury last year put the game in perspective for me. I realized how quick you can be gone [from baseball]. I just wanted to get back."
After Tuesday's game, Bochy described Posey as "one of those hitters you want up there with men on base, the game on the line." Posey is batting .328 this season. Since the All-Star break, Posey has the highest average (.458) and the most RBIs (30) in the majors.
"He's in a real nice groove right now," Bochy said.
In a tight division race with the Dodgers, Posey's role on the team will, just as it was in 2010, be pivotal to the Giants' postseason hopes. Extending his hitting streak Tuesday to 11 games, Posey said that in every at-bat he's just trying to keep the same approach at the plate.
"It's going to change depending on the pitcher, depending where runners are on base ... whether it's late in the game or not," Posey said. "I'm just trying to take everything into account and just have a simple approach: go up there and get the barrel on the ball."
With his offensive production needed in the lineup and in an effort to take some of the physical strain of catching off of him, Posey has played 17 games at first base this year. Bochy says he has held up this season better than he thought he would.
"It's a credit to his conditioning and how hard he worked during his rehab," Bochy said. "His legs are fresh at this point. You're in the dog days, that's what you want, for your catcher to be fresh at this point."
While playing first base does not involve as much pregame preparation as playing catcher does, Posey says the groundwork given to him by pitching coach Dave Righetti and bullpen coach Mark Gardner allow him to stay on top of the demands catching requires while occasionally playing first base.
"It's a little bit easier to come up with a game plan when I have such trust and confidence," Posey said about the communication and analysis that Righetti and Gardner give him.
While the catcher is the most dynamic position in all of baseball, it is also the most dangerous. On a night when the Giants play the St. Louis Cardinals, they have a visible reminder of just how fragile a catcher's career can be. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny had a career-ending concussion in 2006 when playing with the Giants. Bochy recognizes what happened to Matheny, but also says when it comes to Posey, his team leader in RBIs and home runs, he doesn't worry about him getting injured behind the plate.
"Sure, there's some risks wherever you're at -- catching, baserunning," Bochy said. "[Catching is] what he wants to do; it's where we want him. Unfortunately there are some risks with this game."
There have been times during the season when Bochy has asked Posey if he needs an extra day at first base but Posey has told him he feels good and would rather catch. Posey was always an outstanding athlete, a ballplayer often recruited for his hitting but not always as a catcher. On the recommendation of his coaches, he made the transition from shortstop to catcher during his sophomore season at Florida State University.
"I think what I fell in love with was just how involved you are all the time," Posey said about why he enjoyed the position of catcher right away. "When you're playing a different position your mind tends to wander. You can't do that with catching."
He says he likes the challenge of catching, the intricacies, the mind games and all the adjustments he has to make during the game. Still, when asked if it ever crosses his mind that with his offensive production he might have more longevity to his career if he played a different position he thinks about it for a minute and answers with feeling.
"Right now my mindset is, this is what I enjoy doing," Posey said. "I feel blessed that I’m able to do it. I’m going to play it to its fullest and not try to look too far in advance as to where I might be in five to six years. Hopefully I’m still catching. That’s what I’d like to do; I really just enjoy playing the position."