KANSAS CITY -- Joey Gathright, who was cast as the Royals' fourth outfielder last spring, instead has become a fixture in center field.

He got a chance to show his stuff early in the season when center fielder David DeJesus was injured. He's rarely been out of the lineup since.

"Overall, his game's improved," manager Trey Hillman said. "He just needs to be consistent and aggressive with the small-ball part of his game with speed being his No. 1 tool."

Gathright, 27, always had been a backup player in his five seasons with Tampa Bay and Kansas City. Seventy-nine games for the Royals in 2006 were the most he's played. Of the Royals' 66 games this year, he's been in 53 and started 45.

He went into Wednesday night's game against the Texas Rangers with a .241 average, 16 steals in 18 attempts, 12 bunt singles and an American League-leading seven sacrifice bunts.

Because of Gathright's speed, Hillman wants him to hit more ground balls than fly balls, improving his chances of getting on base.

"I come out here and play baseball," Gathright said. "I don't care about fly balls, ground balls. I know what he's talking about, but I've never really been a popup hitter. I think I've hit more this year than I did last year so maybe that's what he's talking about."

Exactly. But Gathright doesn't consciously try to hit grounders.

"I try to swing hard and see what happens," he said. "Sometimes when you get two strikes, you cut your swing down but, until then, swing hard or try to bunt the ball. That's my only goal -- get on base."

Defensively in the past, Gathright was judged as not getting good reads on fly balls and not running the best routes to catch them.

"They're greatly improved even from Spring Training -- he's taking better routes," Hillman said. "Reads are still an issue, especially in sun situations -- you saw him fighting it in New York, but he fought through it."

Even after banging into the wall twice and jamming his left shoulder in a diving catch on Sunday at Yankee Stadium, Gathright surprised and impressed Hillman by being in the lineup the next afternoon.

"You've got to play with injury when you get hurt. I've talked to George Brett and I've heard about Buddy Bell and they played through a lot of injuries," Gathright said. "I don't want to be that guy who can't play because of a shoulder injury. I know other players who are a lot worse than I am. I've dealt with injuries my whole life so it's nothing new."

Gathright noted that he's had surgery twice on his left shoulder and once on his left shoulder. He's also had 37 stitches taken in a leg.

"I cut my leg jumping a car," he said. "Long time ago. Right after high school. I jumped and slipped on the grass, I think, and I hit the windshield. I didn't even know it was cut until they said I was bleeding."

Gathright, of course, is famous for his car-jumping exploits and gained highlight-reel status this spring by jumping over Dodgers pitcher Hiroki Kuroda in the first-base line.

So what kind of car was he trying to soar over when he incurred the 37-stitch injury?

"It was a small car. I was trying to jump the whole thing, back to front," he said.

Hmm, perhaps a Mitsubishi or a Suzuki or maybe a Kuroda?

"No, it was not a Kuroda," he said, laughing.