Loney's future with Dodgers brightens
After struggling for much of the year, first baseman has turned his game around
LOS ANGELES -- On an evening when everything went right for the Los Angeles Dodgers, at least as right as things possibly can go when you're out of the playoff picture, there was one player for whom things pretty much went perfectly.
Perfect swing in his only plate appearance. Perfect defense on the only two balls hit to him. Perfectly tailored fit to his crisp white Dodgers home uniform, which once again is beginning to look right on him.
James Loney, whose first career pinch-hit home run provided the loudest moment in the Dodgers' 7-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates before 41,148 on Friday night at Dodger Stadium, might stick around for a while after all.
Out of the starting lineup against Pirates rookie lefty Jeff Locke, the left-handed-hitting Loney pinch-hit for Justin Sellers against reliever Chris Resop in the midst of a Dodgers rally in the sixth inning and launched a three-run shot over the wall in right-center and bounced over, putting the Dodgers safely in front. He then stuck around and played the rest of the game at first base.
There was a time, of course, and it wasn't that long ago, when it was widely assumed that we were seeing the last of Loney. His offensive production wasn't close to what a corner infielder's needs to be, club officials were increasingly frustrated with him, and his ever-changing stances at the plate suggested to the casual onlooker that he was utterly lost, possibly caught between the line-drive, gap-to-gap doubles hitter he had always been and the home run threat the Dodgers needed him to be.
Loney wasn't scheduled for free agency for another year, but given the fact his salary already was approaching the $5 million mark and figured to zoom past it this winter in arbitration, the Dodgers were all but certain to simply non-tender him, saving themselves a lot of money and making Loney a free agent a year early but also leaving themselves a hole at first base that would have to be filled either by trade, free-agent signing or possibly a still-raw Jerry Sands.
Loney wasn't unaware of what was hanging over his head.
"I remember telling somebody that if I stay on this pace, it will be hard for them to bring me back like this if I don't make changes," he said.
And then, Loney's season turned on a dime.
From opening day through July 19 -- the day of the Dodgers' 97th game of the season -- Loney hit .263 with 13 doubles, four home runs and 31 RBIs, posted a .310 on-base percentage and drew 23 walks while striking out 41 times. From July 20 until now -- a stretch of 53 games on the schedule -- he has batted .300 with 12 doubles, six homers and 21 RBI, posted a .363 OBP and walked 17 times while striking out just 22.
So what changed July 20?
Well, for one thing, the Dodgers changed hitting coaches that day, firing Jeff Pentland after just half a season as the primary guy and promoting Dave Hansen to that role. Was it a coincidence?
"It's hard to put it on that," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "I don't think we have tried to change anything with James [under Hansen]. We're just trying to get him to be a little more aggressive and get the head out a little bit more."
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Loney wouldn't bite on that, either, saying he hasn't worked on anything since Hansen took over that he hadn't worked on under Pentland.
"I think it's just a matter of being ready to hit," he said. "I think I have emphasized that on my own a lot, whoever I have been working with as a hitting coach. There was a time when I had tried so many different things that I finally just decided to take whatever was working and stick with it. I had gotten hits with bad mechanics at times, so I hadn't really paid attention to that too much."
Loney said that epiphany came "about two months ago" -- which, coincidentally, was right around the time the team changed hitting coaches.
In an impromptu meeting with the team's beat reporters during last weekend's series in San Francisco, general manager Ned Colletti said Loney's second-half surge has changed his thinking to some degree as far as Loney's future is concerned. Mind you, that wasn't a commitment to go through the arbitration process with him this winter, but it was a clear indication that letting Loney go is no longer the slam dunk it might have been a while ago.
What we are seeing now is that Loney can be a prototypical corner infielder, a guy with pull-side power who can deliver a big blow at a key moment in a game. Basically, that he is becoming the player the Dodgers have always needed him to be. And for a team that will have plenty of other holes to fill this winter, and not necessarily all the money it will need to fill them, the thought of letting go of a durable every-day first baseman who is a potential Gold Glove winner and appears to have cleared a major hurdle in his career is a tough sell.
"I am confident in my abilities now," Loney said. "Obviously, it's up to them. It is all in their hands how they want to build the team. Right now, I'm just excited about the rest of this year and next year."
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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