Notes: Buck wielding big bat
Slugger tied for Major League lead in homers by a catcher
KANSAS CITY -- John Buck has developed into one of baseball's best-hitting catchers this season.
Entering Thursday's game, he was tied with the White Sox A.J. Pierzynski for the Major League lead in homers by a catcher (eight), and led all catchers in slugging percentage (.630).
Because Buck split time with Jason LaRue during the first month of the season, Buck falls just short of qualifying for the batting-title race. But if he qualified, he would stand fourth among American League hitters in on-base plus slugging percentage (1.040), trailing All-Stars Magglio Ordonez, Alex Rodriguez and Vladimir Guerrero.
Buck hasn't changed anything mechanically, but is hitting much better earlier in plate appearances than past years. On early counts (0-0, 0-1, 1-0, 1-1), Buck is batting .410 (16-for-39) with four homers. Last season, Buck hit .300 (51-for-170) on those same counts, and batted just .245 with 11 homers overall. He also is staying patient later in counts, averaging 13.1 walks per 100 at-bats -- nearly double last season's average.
"I am doing the opposite of what I was doing last year," Buck said. "Just getting more quality at-bats and [being] more patient early in the count and not giving in. I am hitting the ball more, period, than I have in the past. I am not really thinking about where I am hitting it. I am just seeing the ball and hitting it."
Manager Buddy Bell said Buck isn't letting a poor swing or a poor plate appearance bother him.
"I just think that he continues to be aggressive each and every at-bat," Bell said. "I don't think that he lets one at-bat affect him. A typical young player lets this at-bat or this at-bat affect him, and he just kind of lets it roll off his shoulders. He just continues to swing the same way he does every night, because he is pretty much locked in."
Buck has been the team's best hitter during a stretch in which the Royals have won eight of 10 games, batting .360 with three homers.
German bats leadoff: For just the fifth time this season, Esteban German batted leadoff on Thursday night.
German, who started in left field, carried excellent career numbers into the game against Indians starter Jeremy Sowers (4-for-5). German entered Thursday trailing Buck and Mark Teahen for the team lead in on-base percentage (.393) among active players.
Bell said regular left fielder Emil Brown has a back problem, but would be available to play.
German, who has seen starts at five positions and four spots in the batting order, is nearly matching his 2006 numbers (.326 average, .422 on-base percentage).
"I have the same approach no matter what I hit -- first, eighth or ninth," German said. "I am just being patient and working the pitcher and working hard every day and finding a good pitch to hit, and [being] ready to go every day no matter if it is starting, pinch-hit or defense."
Bale set to go on rehab: Left-hander John Bale (left shoulder tightness) tossed batting practice to Mark Teahen and German before Thursday's game and didn't experience any pain after throwing 22 pitches.
Bale, who throws over the top and sidearm, used all of his pitches effectively.
"This is the best I have felt since Spring Training," Bale said. "I am letting it go today with no hesitation. Free and easy. My fastball was moving a lot today, and my sidearm breaking ball was really low and my sidearm fastball was really good."
Bale, who hasn't pitched in a Major League game this season, will take two days off and start his Minor League rehab assignment on Sunday at Triple-A Omaha.
On a hot streak: A few numbers from the team's 8-2 stretch, the Royals' best 10-game run since 2003: The bullpen is 6-1 with a 2.80 ERA and five saves, while the starters have a 3.70 ERA and have worked at least five innings in all but one start. Offensively, the Royals are scorching opposing pitching, batting .299.
"We have better players, and we have younger players that are playing better," Bell said.
O'Neil seat: Nanetta Carter of Savannah, Mo., sat in Buck O'Neil's seat during Thursday's game. Nanetta has coached girls' and women's softball for the last 45 years. She also started three fast-pitch softball teams, a girls' basketball team and had won state championships and national titles.
Charity drive: The Royals' wives will hold their 25th annual food drive to benefit Harvesters -- The Community Food Network of Kansas City -- before Friday's game against the Mariners. They will be collecting items at Gates A and B from 5 p.m.-7:30 p.m. Suggested items include: non-perishable food items and cash donations.
Royals rundown: Omaha's game against Oklahoma was postponed because of rain. ... Double-A Wichita was shut out, 8-0, by Frisco. Top draft pick Luke Hochevar allowed eight hits and seven runs, three earned, in 4 2/3 innings. He struck out two and walked one. Irving Falu is batting .500 over his last five games after collecting two hits on Wednesday. ... Class A Wilmington lost, 5-2, to Potomac. Rowdy Hardy delivered another terrific outing, throwing 7 1/3 innings of two-run ball. Mario Lisson contributed an RBI double and scored two runs. ... Class A Burlington won, 4-2, over Great Lakes. Former first-round pick Matt Campbell allowed one run in five innings.
Player of the day: Hardy continues to shine this season, posting a 1.22 ERA after 51 2/3 innings. He leads the Carolina League in ERA and ranks fifth in innings pitched. Hardy's last start was the first time he allowed more than one run in an outing this season.
Coming up: Two of baseball's best starting pitchers will square off at Kauffman Stadium on Friday night. The Royals' Gil Meche (3-2, 2.44 ERA) will face his former team and Mariners ace Felix Hernandez (2-2, 2.77).
Conor Nicholl is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.