John Buck kept quiet all winter and throughout spring training at the disappointment of losing his job as the Royals’ starting catcher. A hot bat, though, speaks loud enough for everyone to hear.
A close game Tuesday night turned into a rout when Buck capped a five-run eighth inning with a grand slam that carried the Royals to a 9-3 victory over the Cleveland Indians at the new special K.
It was Buck’s second homer of the game. His first put the Royals back on top in the fifth after they let a two-run lead slip away earlier in the inning.
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“Honestly, I’m not thinking about that,” he said. “I’m thinking, every day when I come to the park, how can we get to the playoffs? It’s not whether Miggy (Olivo) or I catch that day.
“I just want to stay focused on what I can control, having fun and helping the team. I want to win so badly here. That’s really, in my heart, how I feel. And that’s helped me approach the situation. I really want me, Miguel and the entire team to succeed.”
Buck’s five RBIs matched a career high, and his two hits enabled him to maintain his .500 average — at six for 12. It also begs the question:
Can the Royals afford not to ride Buck’s surging production by elevating him, if only temporarily, as the starter past Olivo, who has just three hits in 17 at-bats?
“I haven’t done a lineup yet (for today’s game)” manager Trey Hillman said, “but it's tough to keep Johnny’s bat out of there. I won’t deny that.
“We’ll figure it out. There’s a good chance that bat will be back in there somehow.”
Buck’s star turn overshadowed a stellar bullpen effort. Before the Royals posted their five-run eighth against Rafael Perez and Vinnie Chulk, this was the type of game they are built to win with their deep, veteran relief corps.
Starter Kyle Davies, 1-0, wasn’t as sharp as when he went seven shutout innings last Thursday in Chicago. But he handed a one-run lead to the bullpen when he departed after 5 2/3 innings — and the bullpen responded.
“Today was that game that (general manager) Dayton Moore he had in mind when he put this team together,” Buck said. “If we can get to our strength, which is the back of our pen, we’re in good shape.
“We put some comfort runs on the board (late) but, in the past, we’d let that kind of game slip away. We expect to win those types of games now.”
Davies allowed three runs and seven hits while striking out five and walking one.
The bullpen took it from there.
Robinson Tejeda stranded two runners after replacing Davies in the sixth. Juan Cruz followed with two scoreless innings, and the Royals had Joakim Soria warming before their five-run knockout blow.
With Soria not needed, Doug Waechter closed out the Royals’ third straight victory, which boosted them to 5-3 and into undisputed possession of first place in the American League Central Division.
The three-game series against Cleveland, 1-7, concludes at 1:10 this afternoon.
The Royals built leads of 2-0 and 4-2 against Cleveland starter Carl Pavano, 0-2, before turning the game into a rout.
“We lost, so I didn’t do my job,” Pavano said. “They gave me two runs. We tied it up. As a starting pitcher, that’s when you’ve got to bear down. When a team comes back like that, that next inning is big, and I ended up giving them another two runs.”
David DeJesus ignited the five-run eighth with a leadoff a triple into the right-center gap against Perez. DeJesus had to hold when Mark Teahen grounded out to third.
An intentional walk to Billy Butler set up a lefty-lefty matchup between Perez and Mike Jacobs. Perez jumped ahead 0-2 before Jacobs served an RBI single into right for a 5-3 lead. Perez loaded the bases by walking Gordon before exiting.
Buck lashed Chulk’s second pitch, an 0-1 fastball, over the left-field wall.
So much for a tight, tense game dependent on a strong bullpen. Soria took a seat.
“Anytime you get to rest him,” Hillman said, “that’s a bonus. We need some of those.”