SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants' most important step toward a division title didn't come when they replaced their injured closer on the fly. It didn't happen when they came together in the clubhouse and decided that Melky Cabrera's suspension would not be the end of their run.
The most important step toward a National League West crown came on March 9 against the Cincinnati Reds, whom the Giants will face in the National League Division Series that starts Saturday.
After 288 days without an at-bat, Buster Posey flied out against Aroldis Chapman and jogged to first as the spring training crowd roared and his teammates stifled wide grins. And with that at-bat, Posey's comeback from a devastating collision at home plate was on its way.
The rest of the Giants quickly lined up behind their on-field and off-field leader in a bid to win another championship.
"We're not in this situation without Buster," manager Bruce Bochy said. "He's so valuable with the way he catches, handles the staff and hits cleanup while handling all that's thrown at him. He comes out here every day ready to go and ready to lead by example."
That was Posey's modus operandi long before he ever put on a Giants uniform. Posey lasted just a handful of games on the Lee County (Ga.) High freshman team before the coaches realized he was far too advanced for that level. By his sophomore year, Lee County coach Rob Williams said, Posey was the all-around leader of the varsity
"Buster has always been a cut above," Williams said. "You saw the same thing then that you see now. He just assumes that role. If he saw someone not playing with enthusiasm and vigor, he wouldn't get down on them -- he would quietly go over later and say, 'Hey, that's not how you play the game.' "
This season, nobody played the game quite like Posey. He won the N.L. batting title with a .336 average and had 24 home runs, 103 RBIs and a .957 OPS (on-base plus slugging), all while playing the most physically demanding position in the sport.
But it's the intangible factors that mean just as much to his teammates.
"His toughness definitely rubs off on us," right-hander Ryan Vogelsong said. "Even with how demanding the catcher position is, I've never seen him give away an at-bat. You know he's got to be physically beaten down sometimes and mentally tired from calling games, but he stays out there and has good at-bats.
"To see him stay out there through all that, it motivates you. The big thing for us is just how much he's been able to play."
That was the Giants' biggest question mark before the season, and Bochy estimated Posey, who suffered damage to his left leg and ankle in the May 2011 collision, would play just 100 to 110 games. The correct answer was 148, far exceeding even the most optimistic expectations.
"We thought we'd have to handle him with kid gloves," Bochy said. "But he's just responded so well."
Posey gritted his teeth through the occasional painful stretch -- he grudgingly admits he's had three or four very rough physical weeks -- and caught 114 games while also playing first base. He started 27 straight games from Aug. 24 to Sept. 22, when the Giants went from leading the division by three games to clinching the title.
While Posey is said to be the lead speaker in team meetings, along with Matt Cain, Posey rarely raises his voice and is careful about what he says publicly. But he was forceful on the day Cabrera was suspended, saying the Giants had to "approach the rest of the year with a chip on our shoulders."
Again, Posey had set the tone for a team that overcame season-ending injuries to closer Brian Wilson and second baseman Freddy Sanchez, two disabled list trips for third baseman Pablo Sandoval and a rough first half for Tim Lincecum, among other things.
"You have to remember that we're all in this together," Posey said. "You can't get too high on the good stuff or too down on the not good stuff."
There weren't many disappointing days this season for Posey, who over the season's final two months emerged as the leading MVP candidate in the National League.
Posey admits the honor would be nice, but then he quickly turns the subject back to the other candidates. When asked about the MVP race at the All-Star game, the N.L.'s leading vote-getter pointed out that Pittsburgh's Andrew McCutchen and Milwaukee's Ryan Braun were having strong seasons, too.
Posey then went out and let his bat do the talking, hitting .385 in the second half.
In late September, Posey picked up his first piece of hardware. He was named the near-unanimous winner of the Willie Mac Award, given annually to the team's most inspirational player.
One year before, Posey was in Scottsdale, Ariz., and he had grown frustrated with the arduous rehab process. Trainer Dave Groeschner told him to take a couple weeks to clear his mind.
"That helped a lot," Posey said. "From Day 1 they had a plan and stuck to it."
Posey executed the plan over the winter and soon after the Giants reported to spring training, he shook off nearly a year of rehab and slid back behind the plate.
The 2012 season was rarely easy for the Giants, but as they enter the postseason for the second time in three years, it's full speed ahead with Posey setting the pace.
"To go through what he's gone through over the past year and then do what he's done, not many people can do that," shortstop Brandon Crawford said. "That's how you would want to play the game and how you try to play the game.
"He's been a great example for the rest of us."