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DODGERS

James Loney looks to make a bigger contribution

First baseman is drawing from the experience of a full season in the major leagues and says his goal this season is to 'improve on everything.'

March 18, 2009|Jim Peltz

PHOENIX — One day recently, the Dodgers' James Loney saw his name circled on the list of players slated to travel the next day for a Cactus League game.

Loney dutifully showed up extra early the next morning and boarded the team bus. But the first baseman wasn't really scheduled for the trip -- an unknown teammate had circled his name as a prank.

When Loney got off the bus, "that was the maddest I've ever seen him," coach Larry Bowa said. "You're not supposed to do that in the clubhouse."

Seeing Loney visibly angry isn't supposed to happen often, either. A Houston native not given to theatrics, Loney prefers to let his actions on the diamond speak for him.

And as the Dodgers aim for the National League playoffs again in 2009, one question on the minds of many Dodgers observers is how loud Loney's actions will sound this year.

With his first full season in the majors behind him, Loney, 24, has become an anchor of the Dodgers' infield. But club officials see him playing a bigger role both in the field and at the plate as he gains experience and maturity.

Loney hit .289 last year with 13 home runs, 35 doubles and a club-high 90 runs batted in while playing in all but one of the 162 regular-season games. In the five-game league championship series with Philadelphia, Loney batted .438.

"I don't think James has reached his full potential yet offensively or defensively," General Manager Ned Colletti said. "I think there's a chance he'll win a Gold Glove or two before he's done playing, I think he'll also hit 20-plus home runs [a year]."

It's not uncommon to hear people talk about Loney as perhaps the next Bernie Williams, the star center fielder who was one of Dodgers Manager Joe Torre's favorite players when Torre managed the New York Yankees. "Even Joe says that, he says 'You remind me so much of Bernie Williams,' " Bowa said.

But Loney said he doesn't fixate on his statistics.

"Situations dictate how good your season is going to be," Loney said. "You can hit .400, but if you're not hitting good with guys on base, what's the point?

"It's not really about numbers, it's about situations and how you help win games."

Even so, Loney said his goal this year was to "improve on everything . . . being a consistent hitter, consistent on defense, trying not to make the same mistakes you've made in the past."

Such as?

"[Poor] throws to the pitcher [covering] at first, throws to second base, trying to do too much," he said.

Loney's "work ethic is second to none" and he has "a great personality for baseball because he forgets what happened yesterday," Bowa said.

"If he went 0 for 4 with four strikeouts and the next day you'll say 'rough night last night,' and he'll go 'that's over,' which is great if you can have that kind of demeanor."

Loney initially was a top-rated pitcher and first baseman in high school and the Dodgers made him their first-round pick in the 2002 amateur draft. But Dodgers scouts steered him toward being a position player after seeing how well he could hit. He's still working to master first base.

"He needs to probably concentrate and focus a little bit better from time to time," Colletti said, but added that Loney is "mature for his age."

Bowa agreed, even though he gets irked sometimes because Loney is playing out of position.

"I don't know if it's focus, but sometimes during a game he'll make a mistake on a ground ball -- errors are part of the game -- but you see him make all these great plays and there'll be like a nice two-hopper to him and he misplays it, and you say, 'This guy's too good to do that,' " Bowa said.

At the same time, "he makes some unbelievable plays" and his composure on the field is reassuring in tense games, pitcher Chad Billingsley said.

Loney, who learned the game from his father Marion, a former college player, said he's not a headline grabber.

"We're going to make headlines as a team," he said. "If one guy doesn't do the job, the other guys can pick him up day in and day out."

Indeed, Loney said playing first base is gratifying because he can help curb the Dodgers' error count.

"They're trusting in me in case they make a bad throw," he said. "That's the main thing out there for me, trying to help our teammates . . . make their plays."

Still, the question lingers about whether Loney, 6 feet 3 and 220 pounds, can produce more at the plate, especially home runs.

"Power is always the last thing to come as a hitter and it takes a while to figure that out. He's a big kid," Colletti said. "He's starting to figure that out a little bit, how to use his size for power."

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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