Buster Posey drives in a run with a single against the San Diego Padres. (Lenny Ignelzi / Associated…)
SAN FRANCISCO — A little more than a year after Buster Posey's gruesome home-plate smackdown, the rest of the National League West is wincing.
The San Francisco Giants are back in first place, their precocious catcher having resumed a career that, even in its infancy, has been unrivaled by some of the greatest to ever play the position.
Posey was NL rookie of the year in 2010 for a World Series champion. He became a runaway All-Star starter this season after returning from the broken leg and ligament damage that sidelined him for the final four months of 2011.
Not even Hall of Fame catchers Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench and Roy Campanella could match the trifecta of achievements Posey logged in his first three major league seasons.
And did we mention that Posey is still only 25? What could he possibly do next?
"Just win," Posey said. "I mean, that's what's fun."
The good vibes are percolating again inside AT&T Park. The Giants have overtaken the fast-starting Dodgers in the standings, with Posey packing the wallop his team was missing for much of last season on the way to a second-place finish.
The cleanup hitter is batting .315 and leads the Giants with 13 home runs and 60 runs batted in, putting him on track for career highs in each category.
"Between his health and the way he's played," Giants Manager Bruce Bochy said, "we couldn't be more excited about how it's gone this year for Buster."
Bochy, a former catcher, has taken an active role in helping Posey avoid another collision like the one with Miami's Scott Cousins in May 2011 that required multiple surgeries to repair.
Before the first pitch of spring training, the manager ordered his star pupil not to block the plate. Though it might have seemed counterintuitive, it was not much of an adjustment for Posey.
"Even before I got hurt, I was never a guy that stood on top of the plate," Posey said. "I would move out just in front of the plate. So the big difference now is just an extra step out in front of the plate."
Posey's new positioning was on display in the sixth inning Saturday against the Dodgers. He moved out of Hanley Ramirez's way as the baserunner charged down the third-base line, taking the relay throw and trying to tag the Dodger. Ramirez slid around Posey's glove, scoring to help the Dodgers post a 10-0 victory.
The Giants have taken other measures to ensure their top hitter remains planted in their lineup, including timely days off and increased playing time at positions other than catcher.
Of his 87 starts, Posey has made 16 at first base and three at designated hitter.
But he intends to crouch behind the plate for years to come, risks be damned.
"This," Posey said of catching, "is what I enjoy doing."
He plays his position as well as any of his peers, combining natural instincts with a workmanlike approach that has endeared him to the Giants' pitching staff.
Starter Ryan Vogelsong has noticed Posey openly discussing hitters' tendencies while watching games on clubhouse televisions. It's one reason the catcher often seems to know what his opponents will do before they do it.
"I think he just loves the game, I think he strives to be the best player on a daily basis and that's probably why he's had success in college and early here," Vogelsong said. "Sometimes you just have to have that will to want to be the best player on the field and I think he tries to do that."
Posey, who played college ball at Florida State, ascribes his success with the Giants in part to his teammates, who have contributed a slew of step-up performances. Melky Cabrera, who bats third, leads the major leagues with 46 multiple-hit games, No. 2 hitter Ryan Theriot has hit better than .300 over the last two months and the primary starting pitchers not named Tim Lincecum have combined to go 37-20.
"I've had the opportunity to play with a lot of guys that like to win," Posey said, "and I think that always brings out the best in me."
Simply taking the field seems to have invigorated him after having spent months transitioning from a cast to a walking boot to a wheeled doohickey that allowed him to walk on his uninjured leg.
Posey is completely unencumbered now, even though he realizes there is no such thing as a career that stretches on like an endless summer.
"I was able to see how fast the game can be gone, so you try to keep that in mind, even now," he said. "We're almost four months into the season and I still remember that I'm lucky to be playing each day and I just try to go out and have a good time."