Time Running Out on James Loney?

Don Mattingly admits that he's worried about James Loney. There's plenty of reason to worry. Loney went 0-for-3 again on Sunday, lowering his batting average to .150 (with two extra-base hits and six RBIs) through 16 games of the season.

Mattingly admits that if it weren't for Loney's second-half slide last year -- when he posted a slash line of .211/.285/.331 -- that a slow start wouldn't be as big of a deal. But Loney didn't look very good this spring, and he's borderline lost at the plate right now.

Loney is a hitter who frequently tinkers at the plate: with his hands, his feet, his setup and other components of hitting. He's done this throughout his career, in good times and in bad times, and it hasn't affected him.

But now, that constant tinkering isn't helping Loney get out of a slump, which is frustrating for the former hitting coach Mattingly and current hitting coach Jeff Pentland.

"The guys I've seen who are really successful over time are tinkering so small nobody knows it," Mattingly said. "It's really tiny. The problem with (constantly) tinkering is, all of a sudden, you're lost. You think, 'Where am I? I got away from everything I do.' Then you have to go back to square one."

Is Loney at that stage now?

"Well," Mattingly said, a long pause and sigh. "I don't know. I'm not saying he's lost. But he hasn't swung the bat the way I know he's capable."

All the 'tinkering' hasn't been by Loney. It is suspected that various Dodgers batting coaches (they have a bunch of them) have adjusted his swing to produce more power. Apparently that hasn't worked out so well.

Almost every media "expert" has pontificated that Loney's normal .285 average and 90 runs batted in was not sufficient, apparently feeling that a .255 average, 20 home runs and 70 runs batted in record would be more appropriate. That would put Loney on the same level as Rod Barajas or Juan Uribe.

The scenario is chilling similar to what happened to pitcher Joe Black in 1953. He had come up to the Dodgers in 1952 and lit up the night. He was 15-4 with a 2.15 earned run average and 15 saves, won the Rookie of the Year Award and was third in the MVP voting. He beat the Yankees in the World Series opener and over three games he posted a 2.53 ERA.

Manager Chuck Dressen, an admitted egotist that had the answer to every player's problems, attempted to teach him a curve ball during the spring of 1953. A deformed tendon in his pitching hand made it impossible to throw a curve, but Black tried over and over.

Finally, Dressen gave up and told him, "Just go back to doing what you did last year." But by then he couldn't recapture the slider he used with such devastating success and he was out of baseball by 1957, having recorded a 5.17 earned run average after 1952.

The Dodgers want to be patient. They respect what Loney's accomplished since becoming their everyday first baseman midway through the 2007 season.

But the offense is struggling. Really, the only players hitting are Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp and Jamey Carroll.

A spark is needed somewhere, and when the best-hitting prospect in the organization is crushing the ball at Class AAA, and can play first base or left field, it gets people talking.

Jerry Sands has a slash line of .400/.422/.875 through 10 games at Class AAA Albuquerque, along with five home runs and 17 RBIs.

Ideally, the Dodgers let Sands dominate at Class AAA for at least half a season. They want to see him slump a little, and see how he fights his way through adversity. But after managing Sands in the Arizona Fall League, Mattingly doesn't need much more convincing.

"(Sands has) got a different demeanor than most guys," he said. "He makes adjustments. His approach is solid. Again, we're talking about a guy in (Class AAA) now. A lot of things you like is his demeanor and personality and approach. Even if he struggles, it's not going to change his mind about what he thinks he can do."

How long the Dodgers wait for Loney to come around, and to bring Sands to the majors, is the top storyline right now for this team.

--RHP Chad Billingsley led the majors last year with a 0.94 ERA in his six daytime starts, along with a .194 opponents average. Billingsley continued that trend Sunday with eight scoreless innings, much needed since the bullpen was on fumes, and striking out 11. Even more impressive, it came against a Cardinals team that had scored 60 runs in their last six games.

--RHP Vicente Padilla allowed a run on two hits, a walk and a strikeout over an inning during a rehab outing Sunday for Class A Rancho Cucamonga. Barring a setback, the plan is for Padilla to make another one-inning rehab outing on Tuesday, and he could get activated Thursday or Friday. Padilla will be used strictly in relief, and manager Don Mattingly is comfortable using him in any situation, early or late, perhaps even the ninth if closer Jonathan Broxton needs a day off.

--INF Ivan De Jesus Jr. recorded his first major-league hit Saturday against the Cardinals, a clean single to center in the seventh inning.

--LHP Hong-Chih Kuo had walked five batters in 2 2/3 innings to start the year, an unusually high number for him, and even a lot of his outs came on pitches up in the strike zone. The Dodgers believe it's because a lower back strain isn't allowing him to follow through, and when he couldn't get loose in the bullpen April 15, he was placed on the 15-day disabled list the next day.

--RHP Ramon Troncoso was called up from Class AAA Albuquerque on Saturday to replace LHP Hong-Chih Kuo. Troncoso, who pitched 2 1/3 innings April 14 in the minors, was forced to pitch the final two innings April 16 with the Dodgers bullpen in shambles. Troncoso allowed seven hits and three runs in his debut.

Owner Frank McCourt has accepted a personal loan of $30 million from the FOX Corporation, according to the Los Angeles Times. That enables him to meet the payroll through May. With attendance shrinking markedly, his future could be determined by how the Dodgers play the next month or so and if they can win back the Los Angeles fans. It seems obvious that his rating with the L.A. loyalists is near the Mendoza Line.

BY THE NUMBERS: 31 -- Pitches fouled off by Cardinals hitters against Clayton Kershaw in just 4 2/3 innings on April 16. Kershaw threw 111 pitches total in the game. Jo-Jo Reyes is the only pitcher to have more foul balls hit off him in a single game this year, 32 against the Angels.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "You definitely want to be the guy that can get your team out of it. That's something you take pride in. You want to be the guy that stops the bleeding. Unfortunately, (Saturday) I just kept it going. It's definitely easier on yourself when you get quick outs, but that's part of why you're out there. It's not always going to be easy. You've just got to keep battling. I wish I could have had the home run back, but it's just one of those things." ñ- LHP Clayton Kershaw, after giving up five runs on 11 base runners in 4 2/3 innings against the Cardinals.

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