Loney's Feeling Groovy Again

VERO BEACH, Fla.- The bat moves through the zone like a cobra striking, the ball jumps and zooms lazerish into the gap. Another double and you think, "Ah, James has got his groove back." That's "James" as in James Loney, who, earlier when asked about what he hoped to achieve this spring, replied, "I want to get back to being consistent at the plate. I spent too much time last year changing things around- my approach, my stance, everything. It fouled me up."

From that remark, you may gather that he did so badly that they were considering re-naming the Mendoza line for him, but, he wound up hitting .284 at Jacksonville. No, it was that home run matter.

You see, the big knock that his detractors- and they're out there- lay on him is that he doesn't deliver with power. Oh, it used to be also that he was injury-prone but when he played in more games than anybody else in the organization in 2005, that rap was stamped "invalid."

Still, all those at-bats produced 11 home runs. His personal high but it didn't evoke comparisons to Lou Gehrig, either, and a top first base prospect is supposed to produce with sock. So, they scoff he's over-rated.

After the regular season, he went to the Arizona Fall League and proceeded to drive five out of the yard in only games and still they sneered. "That's Arizona, where in that dry, desert air, Dame Edna shows pop."

See what I mean? So, in an effort to please James started tinkering with a swing that had been a thing a beauty before he began trying to please everybody.

Thus it's nice to report that this spring- his first on the 40-man roster- he's back to doing it in that silky smooth manner he did before and the base hits are flying around the yard once more. Almost every time up there, he's whacked the ball hard some place and the average is hovering right around .500.

And if James has those who doubt him there are many who leap to his defense. They seem to come in two groups, really: one saying he could wind up a Mark Grace, John Olerud type and is that so bad ? The other notes that those 11 dingers demonstrate that as he moves up, he produces more and that's in the tradition of a lot of guys who wind up being big boppers.

Scouting Director Logan White is the leader of that pack. He points to the 31 doubles James hit last year and maintains that a lot of those will start going over the wall rather than off it as James gets even bigger and stronger and more experienced.

Some would say that Logan's biased toward Loney because he's the first player White ever drafted after assuming his job in 2002. The answer to that is that Logan does have a bias. It's toward ball players with genuine talent and James is one of those.

Another thing that is obvious about James this spring is the manner that his body has filled out. He's a lithe 6-2, weighs around 225 now and is rock solid. With all this going, he is scalding the ball.

If the doubters ask, "So, where's the hone runs?" The answer is that he's been victimized a bit in that. The other day he ripped two that looked destined to depart the premises only to have those winds that frequently swirl in off the Atlantic at this time of year bat them down into the outfielder's glove. Two outs in the scorebook, two imposing shots if you were watching.

Of course this showing isn't going to win James the first base job in L.A. right now. Not when they got Nomar Garciaparra to do that. Still, Grady Little and Ned Colletti have seen what he's capable of so while it's off to Las Vegas, can L.A. be far in the distance?