ST. PETERSBURG — James Loney wasn't even supposed to play Monday.
The Rays first baseman came to the ballpark, took a few hacks in the batting cage then figured he would call it a day. He grabbed a plate of food and propped his feet up to watch his teammates wrap up a four-game series with the Orioles.
Some day off.
Loney's pinch-hit, walkoff homer in the bottom of the ninth was his biggest hit of the year and, depending on how things go in the next week, might be the most important hit the Rays will have all season.
"I did want to give him the day off," said Rays manager Joe Maddon, who gave Sean Rodriguez a rare start at first in place of Loney.
Why? Well, Maddon thought Loney looked a little fatigued of late. You could see why. Loney was in a 3-for-24 slump. Plus, Maddon wasn't crazy about the matchup against Baltimore's starting pitcher, lefty Wei-Yin Chen.
In fact, as the game plodded along, you got the feeling that Maddon was going to do whatever he could to keep Loney from playing. He called upon David DeJesus to pinch-hit. Then it was Jose Lobaton. Later it was Matt Joyce.
For a moment, you almost forgot that Loney was on the team.
And, when you think about it, that's the type of player Loney is. His personality is so quiet, so unassuming that you can't help but take him for granted.
When you think of the Rays, you think of Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist. You think of Wil Myers and all that young pitching. Heck, you even think of Super Sam Fuld. Loney is an afterthought, one of the "other guys."
But no matter what happens the rest of this season, the book on the 2013 Rays should include a rather lengthy — and glowing — chapter on Loney.
When the Rays went shopping in the discount section for a first baseman in the offseason, Loney was one of the more intriguing names out there. He's a superior fielder, he can hit for average but he has one considerable knock against him among old-school baseball types: He doesn't hit a lot of homers for a first baseman.
And he was coming off a subpar season that included a trade from the Dodgers to the Red Sox.
"I was all messed up last year," Loney said. "I didn't know what I was doing, actually."
That's why he came at such a cheap price tag: one year, $2 million. He came into 2013 with something to prove.
"I think, first, to myself," Loney, 29, said. "That's the biggest thing. The person I wanted to prove it to was me, that I can do it. And once you do that, I feel like everyone else can see that."
Turns out, Loney has been quite the bargain. For the first two months of the season, he led the American League in hitting and still leads the Rays in batting average at .296. His power numbers are on par with his career. He hit his 13th homer Monday.
Not that Maddon or the Rays care about his power.
"James, to me, you got to look underneath the hood with him," Maddon said. "This guy is one of the best first basemen in all of baseball. Beyond that, (he's a) good hitter that drives in runs with less than home runs. A lot of guys don't have big RBIs unless they do hit homers. He knows how to drive in runs with something other than a home run."
Honestly, Maddon wasn't expecting Loney to run into a homer Monday. Maddon's plan was for Loney to get on base then send in a pinch-runner. Loney's plan wasn't quite as detailed.
"I was just looking for a pitch to drive," he said.
Loney fouled off the first pitch from O's reliever Tommy Hunter then drilled the 0-and-1 pitch into the rightfield seats for the Rays' first pinch-hit homer of the season and the second walkoff homer of Loney's career.
"I knew I hit it good," Loney said, "and I thought, 'Come on, that's got to get out of here.' "
Loney called it special, and that pretty much sums up his life in 2013. Off the field, he and his wife, Nadia, celebrated the birth of their first child, son Jordan, back in July. On the field, his comeback season has turned around his career and has the Rays thinking postseason. They took a giant step in that direction Monday thanks to Loney's homer.
Not bad for an off day.