Dodgers pitcher J.P. Howell and Tampa Bay Rays first baseman James Loney were sitting in opposite clubhouses Friday. They were never traded for each other, but they have effectively swapped spots: Loney appeared in parts of seven seasons for the Dodgers from 2006-12, while Howell pitched for the Rays from 2006-12.
Both said the same thing about playing in Tampa.
“You always want to be yourself. (Manager Joe Maddon) is real big on that,” Loney said.
Howell elaborated: “Sometimes where people [on other teams] give up on (players), they go to Tampa and they get another chance, and they’re allowed freedom to be themselves, create who they want to be when they first started their career. … That’s what happened in my case.”
That seems to be the case with Loney, too.
Loney isn’t bitter toward the Dodgers. The 29-year-old first baseman said that no one within the team told him he needed to hit with more power.
That merely seemed to be the message as Loney continually occupied the middle of the batting order — his apparent destiny after the Dodgers drafted him 19th overall in 2002. To be exact, he was penciled in third, fourth or fifth 466 times as a Dodger. His combined appearances in other spots in the lineup: 334.
Friday, Loney was batting seventh. Among Tampa players with enough at-bats to qualify for a batting title, Loney was first with a .307 average. Sure, his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame suggested there was more pop in his bat than his 10 home runs would indicate, but it seemed to be working OK. “Bargain pickup” was his new preferred title — Loney took a pay cut as a free-agent, signing for $2 million — replacing “underachiever.”
Loney has played in 109 of the Rays’ first 113 games, which he says is the biggest difference from a year ago. Loney was used as a late-game replacement in 33 games for the Dodgers last season, and benched altogether in 11 more, before being traded to the Boston Red Sox in August. He was hitting .254 with four home runs at the time of the trade.
“At times over there I struggled a little bit and didn’t get to play for a while,” Loney said diplomatically. “It is what it is. It happens a lot of places. If that didn’t happen, I probably wouldn’t be in this great position that I’m in.”
Tampa Bay has the majors’ best second-best record (28-11, a .718 winning percentage) since June 22, while the Dodgers are a major-league best 34-8 (.810) in that time.
Is this redemption? Loney doesn’t look at it that way.
“I’ve always believed in myself,” he said. “There’s times where I feel like I can do certain things that a lot of people can’t. In the batter’s box, I always take that confidence with me. Since I can remember I was made to do this and I can keep doing this.”