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T.J. SIMERS

He's got a plan for Dodgers' James Loney and his home-run rut

Unable to work with coach Don Mattingly, the columnist enlists Andre Ethier to help the struggling Loney break through.

August 27, 2009|T.J. SIMERS

FROM DENVER — I welcome the challenge, maybe the toughest in a career dedicated to helping our local athletes.

I pull this off, already giving it everything I've got to get the best out of Andre Ethier, and the Dodgers might not be as dead as they appear at times.

Sure, it's darn near an impossible task, Donnie Baseball already failing miserably, but I believe I can get James Loney to hit a home run.

A few years back I had Karl Dorrell and UCLA beating Pete Carroll and USC with a national championship game invite on the line for the Trojans, so after putting my faith in Dorrell, I feel as if I've already been there with Loney.

It's true, as the Dodgers have gagged recently, so has Loney, not only not hitting a home run since July 10, but not really hitting anything.

He's batting .211 in August, one hit in his last 12 times at the plate, and he went belly up Tuesday night with every chance to set the Rockies back in the series opener.

Here's someone who had a hit in his first major league at-bat, someone who drove in nine runs in one game before having played 50 games in the big leagues. Three years into his career, he began the season a .303 hitter.

But this year he's been good for the most part only as a rally killer, even replaced at times by Mark Loretta.

"As inept as James looks so often . . . " Manager Joe Torre says before Wednesday night's game, and there's really no reason to finish the sentence.

The guy's just been awful, Loney admitting, "I'm surprised my batting average (.274) is as high as it is the way I've been going this season."

It's against this backdrop that I went to work before Wednesday's game, asking to speak to Don Mattingly, the team's hitting coach, so we might put our heads together.

The Dodgers wouldn't make Mattingly available, saying he was too busy in the batting cage, apparently working on his own swing.

You can't tell me he's busy working with Russell Martin, Orlando Hudson and Rafael Furcal the way they have been swinging the bats. If he is, I can understand why he wouldn't want anyone to know it, especially if he has any designs on following Torre as Dodgers' manager.

As it is, I worry about Mattingly. You walk by the guy and he never makes eye contact. Now how does he expect any of his pupils to listen to him when he says, "You've got to keep your eye on the ball," and while he says so, drops his own eyes to the floor?

I call Ethier over and tell him to tell Loney who has made him into the hitter he is today, three hits Tuesday night, and three more Wednesday night including two home runs.

Ethier never mentions Mattingly.

OK, so before the game Ethier and I work on Loney's head. Loney is wearing a mouth guard, obviously ready to deal with Page 2, claiming, "I'm in the right place now."

I just figure he's in the right clubhouse, happy not to be lost for a change -- as he's appeared most of this season.

"He's struggling, all right," says coach Larry Bowa.

"You know he's one of the most courteous and respectful players I have ever been around in baseball. Now if you have three players and two coaches saying things to him, he's going to listen and try and do what they say. His family is probably giving him advice too. His circle of friends, and a guy like this probably has a lot of friends, are probably talking to him.

"It's an overload," Bowa concludes. "Keep it simple. See it, hit it."

I wouldn't listen to Mattingly either, or Jeff Pentland, the Dodgers for some reason employing two hitting coaches and Ethier doing all the hitting. The other guys ought to just watch him.

"I've made things more complicated for myself," Loney admits. "I've tried to be too perfect."

There were rumors the Dodgers were including him in trade talks shortly before the deadline, a surprise when you consider how much stock they've put in their corps of young players now maturing as a group.

But Loney frustrates this coaching staff, Torre joining the crowd around the indoor batting cage watching Loney trying to find a consistent stroke.

"He looks fine in the cage," Torre says. "It's like hitting [golf] balls on the practice range. You hit a bad one, you can just tee up another; it changes when you get out there.

"We have to get him going. It'd be nice to say, 'Get somebody else,' but there's just too much inside there. I still think he can hit a number of home runs."

The Dodgers would like Loney to turn on the ball as Ethier is doing now. As I learn, he just needs to be told to hit a home run.

"You're going to have to wait and see if I'm going to be a home run hitter," Loney says. "I know I have the ability."

"No waiting," I tell Loney. "Tonight."

After all, in Denver if you're going to wear No. 7, you better come up big and in big games.

"I feel I'm going to be good for the rest of the season," Loney says, and I have only worked with him for a few minutes.

"I could still have a great year," Loney says, and so I remind him after he hits a home run against the Rockies, it would be nice if he waves to the press box.

Two hours later it's the fourth inning, two on, first pitch and Loney hits a bomb into the right-field seats for his first home run in 137 at-bats.

It's a big hit, in a big game and should the Dodgers go on to leave the Rockies behind now, the death knell for Colorado.

Loney is so proud of himself because it's been such a long time and yet, "I knew where all the bases were."

He touches them all too but never once glances to the press box, arriving in the dugout to shake everyone's hands -- like he's the one who hit the home run.

--

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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