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03/21/11 8:43 PM ET

With or without power, Loney a dangerous hitter

Dodgers first baseman feels he found groove in Spring Training

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- What's wrong with 90 RBIs?

James Loney has been good for that, or thereabouts, each of the past three seasons, yet the book on the Dodgers' first baseman usually starts with what he lacks -- the home-run production for which his position is usually known.

He's averaged 12 home runs those three years, hitting 10 in 2010. Loney is now 26 years old with four full seasons under his belt, and one wonders -- if he isn't a home-run hitter by now, when will he be?

And does he even need to be?

"In the first half last year, he had 63 RBIs," said manager Don Mattingly. "He had, like, 25 doubles, and those drive in runs. He was on a pace for 115 RBIs. It's not so much home-run power that you need. I'm not downplaying home runs. I was like that, until Mickey Vernon told me that home runs can put a game away or can put you back in a game.

"And the pitcher, when he faces you and you're dangerous, he knows he has to be careful, and that leads to mistakes, putting some fear into him, and that's what you like to see. But I'll take James' first half all day long."

The comparison often made to Loney is three-time All-Star Mark Grace (career highs of 17 HRs and 98 RBIs). Although handy with the glove around the bag, Loney hasn't been an All-Star. He's in his fifth season with a $4.875 million salary and people keep waiting for that power breakout, the kind his manager showed back in the day.

In Mattingly's first half-season with the Yankees, he hit four home runs in 305 at-bats at age 22. The following year, his first as a regular, he hit 23 home runs in 603 at-bats and averaged 26 home runs over a six-year span until injuries set in.

"James has great hand-eye coordination, but he's just not able to get his bottom hand connected," Mattingly said. "When Lou Piniella got me to use my bottom hand, that's where my power came from. It's not about strength or size. It's about timing. That's why you see some little guys hitting home runs. They've got leverage. James hasn't gotten to the point where he takes it into the game. In [batting practice] he can hit them a mile, but he doesn't keep that bottom hand connected.

"Piniella taught me the bottom hand. The home run put me in a different category. Otherwise, I would have been .320 with 10 homers driving in 100. When I hit 35, it was like, wow, I couldn't believe it."

Loney finished last season with his lowest career average (.267, after hitting .211 in the second half) with 88 RBIs. He is hitting .303 this spring without an extra-base hit, having shaken off a swollen left knee three weeks ago.

Loney said he has developed bad habits during the past three years, and he is trying to regain the form of his 2007 season (when he hit .331 with 15 HRs in only 344 at-bats).

"I've been looking at old tapes from '07, when I hit nine homers in one month and I was driving the ball real well," said Loney, who has a .300 average in two postseasons. "I know what it feels like, that's why I'm excited about this year, because I slowly got away from it. I'm getting that feeling back and trusting it.

"I'm thinking that if I can drive in 90 and hit .270 with bad mechanics, imagine if I was doing all the right things? I showed early on that I could drive the ball with a no-fear attitude. Maybe I got caught up on trying to be too perfect with every pitch. You can't hit every pitch perfect."

Loney said he wasn't afflicted by a pull-conscious mentality, even if he heard some in the organization say he should hit for more power.

"It's been more of a timing thing," he said. "I just need to get my body in the right place, or I can't pull. That's been my biggest fight, fighting myself to get my body in position to hit. This spring, I'm feeling better."

Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.