Loney again, naturally

AP photo David Zalubowski

Jan-Christian Sorensen
Contributing Writer

Remember this guy? If you blinked last September, probably not.

James Loney, the bus-fare portion of the mega-millions trade-deadline swap that exiled Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford to Los Angeles last fall, is having a standout year at the plate for his new team in Tampa Bay.

Loney went two-for-four in Boston’s 5-3 loss to the Rays on Tuesday, raising his average to a league-best .381 — six points ahead of Detroit slugger and reigning Triple-Crowner Miguel Cabrera. The Rays first baseman ranks fifth in the majors in OBP (.431) and fifth in the American League in OPS (.997). He’s also fifth among first basemen in slugging percentage at .566, which boosts him above the guys who elbowed him out of both Los Angeles (Adrian Gonzalez, .504) and Boston (Mike Napoli, .523).

And he’s only costing the Rays two million bucks. Not too shabby for a player maligned as an “underachiever” by Dodgers fans and labeled a throwaway in the big Boston trade.

Arriving late in a harrowing season in Boston last August, Loney suited up in only 30 games, hitting .230 with a pair of homers and eight RBIs while playing a typically flawless defense at first base once Adrian Gonzalez was A-Gone. It was too small a sample to say whether Loney would have been able to make an impact both on and off the field for the Sox if his career continued in Boston instead of another city.

“I think it’s great for me to be in this situation,” said Loney of his new digs in Tampa Bay. “This team, this organization. I feel like the change was good for me. I definitely feel blessed to be in this situation. I just think the whole environment is better here. You’ve got the right type of leaders here. You’ve got the right type of guys. And you know, it’s just a good atmosphere that we have.”

Considering the toxic tenor that greeted Loney when he touched down at Logan and walked into his first Fenway press conference, it’s easy to understand the seemingly heartfelt nature of that quote. Last year Loney landed smack-dab in the middle of a clubhouse simmering with division, hostility and recrimination, and was forced to trade Don Mattingly for a manager who made Bucky Dent seem like a first-tier saint.

Now that he’s under the benevolent watch of the eccentric and affable Rays manager Joe Maddon, Loney seems to have found his niche. He’s comfortable on the field and at the plate. He’s looking more like the player who hit .331 with 15 homers and 67 RBI for the Dodgers in 2007.

A month ago at Fenway when the Sox edged the Rays 3-2 on Jackie Robinson day to sweep the first season series between the two AL East rivals Loney was floundering at the plate, going 0-for-6 with three strikeouts and a .172 average.

Since then, it’s been a sustained climb to the top of the hitting column.

“The big thing with James, I think, is leave him alone,” says Maddon. “Let him play. This guy is very misconstrued. All I heard about was how passive and quiet he is, but I think it’s one of his biggest strengths. It’s an outstanding strength. You watch him play, this guy’s never in a panic, he’s always under control, he’s in the present tense, all the things you want a player to be. He’s been great. He’s been outstanding offensively and defensively.”

Twitter: jan_doh