Programming note: Giants-Diamondbacks coverage tips off tonight at 6:30 with Giants Pregame Live, only on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area
PHOENIX – Buster Posey arrived in spring training 10 days before the first pitchers began trickling through the door, determined to work in the cage to sharpen his swing.
His resolve needed no whetstone.
The Giants are Posey’s team, and that was underscored Monday night when they opened their season with a 9-8 comeback victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.
Posey provided the late muscle with a tiebreaking, two-run home run in the ninth off Addison Reed. Posey threw out a runner to end the eighth inning, too. More than anything, he grabbed hold of a game that careened so far out of control, manager Bruce Bochy turned to bench coach Ron Wotus and asked, “Can we start spring training over?”
There is no way to play over last season, when the Giants flopped again as defending champions. For Posey, it was the first time in his baseball life that he played out the string. His first time with nothing at stake. The crown is heavy. In the second half, a catcher’s legs are heavier. There was no jolt of pennant fever to coax him along, nothing hanging on every pitch he received or at-bat he took. The losses stung less, the wins weren’t as honeyed. When you are buried in the standings, the world goes numb.
The Giants, and Posey, had every low-hanging excuse to make. Angel Pagan got hurt. Ryan Vogelsong got hurt. There was the short offseason, and the World Baseball Classic, and hell, the Dodgers went 36-8 beginning in late July. It was throw-up-your-hands stuff.
The first six innings Monday night had that same kind of vibe. At times, Brandon Belt and Joaquin Arias fielded like they had never played on the right side of the infield before. Madison Bumgarner, who took the mound with such promise, lasted just four innings and got charged with four unearned runs. Even a rundown play – an old standby drill in the spring – went awry when Arias committed too late and Belt threw too late.
That’s when Bochy, with a groan and grumble appropriate for the occasion, turned to Wotus and asked for 40 more groundhog days.
But the Giants kept working at-bats, and benefited from a bit of luck, too. Pablo Sandoval started his contract drive with an RBI single on an inside pitch and a self-preservation checkswing. Belt came back from a horrible start – in addition to his miscues, he looked befuddled while striking out twice against Brandon McCarthy – to hit a home run amid a three-hit night.
“I feel good about the way we battled back,” Belt said. “It’s easy to accept what’s happening around you. But we didn’t. We pushed through and in my case, I put that behind me and moved on.”
Last year, the Giants accepted it. Even Posey accepted it, to an extent. Or maybe he didn’t. He hit .244 with two home runs after the break, with so much tarnish on his brilliant swing that it was barely recognizable. He got into bad habits because he tried to hit home runs, and as Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens told me this spring, that’s precisely the trap Posey worked all spring to avoid this time.
Maybe that’s why, as Posey stepped to the plate in the ninth with two outs, and Belt on first base, Bumgarner turned to Tim Hudson in the dugout and made a certain prediction.
“Me and Huddy were sitting there trying to guess what’d happen,” Bumgarner said. “I’m always hoping for a home run, but I went with a base hit to right field – and he definitely did more than that.”
First, Posey called a late timeout, which appeared to fluster Reed. Maybe Arizona’s new closer tried to hump up and throw a little harder as a result, and maybe that’s why he elevated his fastball. In any case, Posey did not miss.
“He’s on a different level, man,” Bumgarner said. “He’s so good. He’s been that good since Day One. It’s fun, really fun, to watch him play every day.”
Said Posey: “I think we want to be a team that keeps grinding and keeps pushing. We know we’ve got the ability to come back. I only do what I can do, and that’s stay within myself and help the team win ballgames.”
It's becoming clear that Posey's definition of "what I can do" is expanding. Remember what we learned this spring, about who stepped up and challenged Pablo Sandoval to get in shape this winter? We knew Posey expected nothing but excellence from himself. Now we know he's willing to demand it of his teammates, too. It's common knowledge around the team that Bochy solicits advice from Posey on everything from structuring the lineup to ordering the pitching staff. Bochy might be the manager. But this is Posey's team.
Of course, Posey will never give away too much information. There is no window into his soul when you’re holding a notebook. Asked what he expects of himself, he gave a nervous laugh and hesitated before answering.
“I think we all have our own expectations and … there’s a bar set in this clubhouse,” he said.
For all Posey does for the Giants, sweeping public pronouncements are not his thing. So allow Belt to have the final word, then.
“We’re not going to accept mediocrity or anything less than that,” he said. “With the team we have, the pitching staff we have, we should win and win a lot.”
It was not a dominant opening day victory, or a pretty one. But in the end, Posey socked one out and the Giants slapped hands.
And there was nothing numb about it.