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Loney hits all the right notes with Rays

PORT CHARLOTTE — James Loney's return to the Rays — on a, relatively speaking, high-priced $21 million, three-year deal — was the product of mutual comfort and compatibility.

Loney liked whom he was playing for and with, the relaxed environment they played in, the success he and the team had, the security and familiarity he'd enjoy.

"It kind of felt like that feeling I was looking for," the first baseman said. "A great combination of everything."

And the Rays were pleased with so much of what he did: the Gold Glove-caliber defense, the consistent and better-than-expected offense, a steadying presence on and off the field with an occasional dash of comedic relief and flash of fire.

Also …

"He's got great sax appeal," manager Joe Maddon said.

It was early August, during one of the Rays' already crazed clubhouse victory celebrations, when Loney made clear just how much he enjoyed being part of it. He broke out the saxophone he'd played on and off since his school days and took what became a regular turn in the spotlight.

"Just havin' fun," he said.

Nobody really knew how it would work out when Loney signed with the Rays for the 2013 season. Coming off a dismal 2012 during which the Dodgers dealt him to the Red Sox, and after which L.A. manager Don Mattingly dismissively said he was "trending backward," Loney took a hefty pay cut — from $6.4 million to $2 million (plus $1 million in incentives) — in exchange for a shot to be a lineup regular and resurrect a once-promising career with the Rays.

"I was looking for a chance to play every day and have that opportunity again," said Loney, 29. "They told me they'd liked me for a while in the past. I was excited. I'd heard good things about here, too.

"It wasn't too complicated. For me, it's figuring out what do you want. Are you in the part of your career thinking you're not an everyday guy yet? I did not think I was."

Loney couldn't have been more right.

And neither could the Rays.

The offensive contributions were strong: a team-high .299 average overall and .310 with runners in scoring position, a majors-best 29.8 percent line drives on balls in play, 13 homers, 75 RBIs, a .348 on-base percentage.

But the glove work was even better, not just in how well he performed, making tough plays easily and scooping throws effortlessly, but how he did it.

"He makes every position on the infield better," Maddon said. "Those guys relax in a good way — there's no rush, there's no hurry, there's no concern of a muff. … The confidence he draws from the rest of the guys is really significant."

Loney had other offers, but when the Rays agreed to go to three years and up to $21 million — the largest free-agent deal they've done under the Stuart Sternberg ownership — he eagerly signed back on, much to the pleasure of his teammates, making his gamble of the previous year well worth it.

"I definitely had a good feeling after the season," he said. "I was definitely happy with the progression and proud of the work I was putting in and believed it would pay off."

He liked the security of the multiyear deal, especially since he and wife Nadia in July had their first child, Jordan James. "You never know what can happen," he said. "As you get older you start thinking more about those kind of things with the family and that kind of stuff."

Plus Loney has some more sax playing to do.

"I want to win with these guys," he said. "It would be fun winning with these guys. It's just that feeling you want to experience."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.

Loney hits all the right notes with Rays 03/02/14 [Last modified: Monday, March 3, 2014 1:31am]

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