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  1. Rays

New Ray Loney knows priorities

James Loney is known for his defense at first base and has posted a stellar .995 fielding percentage during his career.
James Loney is known for his defense at first base and has posted a stellar .995 fielding percentage during his career.
Published Feb. 20, 2013

PORT CHARLOTTE — In the three seasons Larry Bowa coached James Loney with the Dodgers, he said he only saw one demeanor from the first baseman: low-key.

Loney, 28, plays with the kind of calm and smoothness that reflects his easygoing personality. He's a competitor, but he stays relaxed, much like he does during his favorite hobby of going to the movies with his wife, Nadia; he says he has seen most of the Oscar-nominated films.

"It's hard to get James riled up," Bowa said.

But get to know Loney, Bowa says, and you'll see a dry sense of humor.

Bowa, a former manager and the Dodgers third-base coach from 2008-10, found that out one time when he criticized Loney between innings for how he always goes after ground balls he shouldn't have.

"I said, 'If I've told you once, I've told you 100 times, you've got to know where the second baseman is,' " says Bowa, now an MLB Network analyst. " 'And if the ball is not hit hard, you've got to cover the bag. What's going on?' "

Quipped Loney: "I guess you'll have to tell me 101 times."

The Rays have continued to tell Loney, who signed a one-year, $2 million deal in the offseason, to be himself: a strong defender and line-drive, left-handed hitter, one who swings for the gaps and not the fences. He's not a high-power, high-strikeout slugger like Carlos Peña, whose spot — and spring training locker — Loney has taken.

But Loney can work counts and drive in runs, as well as prevent others with his dazzling glove (.995 career fielding percentage). And the Rays are hoping that giving Loney a fresh start, and a chance to play regularly for a contender, can help him bounce back from his worst season (.249, six homers, 41 RBIs).

"The biggest thing is I've felt a great vibe, great energy here," Loney said. "It just feels like good team chemistry, the right situation."

Bowa believes Loney, the Dodgers' first-round pick in 2002 (19th overall), may be the victim of misplaced expectations following his power surge in 2007 (15 homers in 96 games, including nine in September). "Sometimes, first impressions are lasting impressions," Bowa said. "And everyone thought he was a 30-home run guy."

Bowa thinks there was pressure on Loney to be that type of hitter, and he was hard on himself when he wasn't. The Houston native had double-digit homers from 2008-11, but never more than 13, relatively low for a position filled with the likes of Mark Teixeira, Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols. He did, however, knock in 85-plus runs in three straight years.

Loney says he doesn't think about home runs when he's at the plate, focusing on driving the ball, "and if they get out, they get out."

"Our focus is for him to have consistent swings, drive the middle of the field, hit the gaps," hitting coach Derek Shelton said. "We need him to drive in runs, which he's done in his career. He's got good hands."

Loney also has been hands-on in the community, a two-time Dodgers nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award (2008 and 2010), which recognizes players for their sportsmanship and off-field contributions. A graduate of the Houston RBI program, Loney often invited kids from the L.A. RBI program to Dodger home games. And Loney hosted a bowling charity event for three years, donating $7,500 to dedicate two lanes to a children's hospital in L.A.,

"He's bright, he's got a nice way about him," manager Joe Maddon said. "He communicates, he's not afraid to tell you what he's thinking, which I like."

Bowa predicts Maddon's style will be a great fit for Loney, who is a "good gamble for the Rays."

"Nothing really bothers him," Bowa said. "He loves to compete, likes to win. If he's 0-for-20, he thinks he can go up there and get a hit. He's got great confidence in himself and I'm sure that confidence sort of waned a little bit the last couple years. … But I think he's a very good player, he just needs to stay within himself. And if home runs happen, they happen."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com.

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