Loney seizes October moment

Loney seizes October moment

LOS ANGELES -- It was just after 11 p.m. on the West Coast, and the powerful smell of champagne was thick, the clubhouse floor was sticky, the crush of management and media and family had receded, and James Loney was just standing there with a handful of Dodgers teammates all ready to leave for the night.

"Batting practice at one tomorrow!" shouted the Dodgers' trainer.

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"Geez, I want to hit at nine!" Loney shouted back.

It was an inside joke, an inside-the-clubhouse joke, the kind of inside-the-championship joke you share when you have just swept the Cubs in a National League Division Series and you really have the day off on Sunday.

It was good to be James Loney right then.

He just lurched forward like one of those October players you remember so well through the ages, the ones who just have the right kind of timing.

"Joe Carter. For me, I kind of remember Joe Carter," Loney said, thinking back on his own October memories. "I was probably 8. That's who I remember."

Now he was the key figure in October, right here, right now. Loney crashed a double to right field in the first inning that scored the two runs that mattered in the 3-1 clinching triumph over the Cubs on Saturday night at Dodger Stadium, and that meant he has the club record for combined NLDS RBIs with nine.

Loney had been tied with Eric Karros (1995) and Steve Garvey (1981), all with seven. Loney's were combined, because he also went 3-for-4 with three RBIs in Game 3 of the 2006 NLDS against the Mets at Dodger Stadium, and it was his grand slam in Game 1 of this series that erased a quick 2-0 deficit and set the tone.

"It's a pretty cool thing to watch, isn't it?" Dodgers owner Frank McCourt said to MLB.com during the clubhouse celebration. "You watch these young players go through their learning curves. Like all youngsters, they stumble. But there are tremendous mentors here. You watch guys learn from the mistakes, create their own identity, it's a wonderful thing when you see these young players blossom."

Loney, 24, emerged as a big run producer this season, leading the Dodgers with 90 RBIs. He also showed durability, playing in 161 games. There was some muttering about a fatigue factor at the end of the season, as even club general manager Ned Colletti told reporters on the final weekend of the regular season that Loney appeared to be getting "a little bit tired." That, Loney says now, was never an issue.

"Oh, I was fine," he said. "You can't be tired now."

Then he looked around and took in the moment again.

"There's no better feeling, getting it done," he said. "We're just having fun, not complicating it."

A crowd of 56,000 had a lot of fun. Loney made sure of it. He started at first base again in Game 3, and his double to right off Cubs starter Rich Harden followed a double by Russell Martin and a single by Manny Ramirez. There was no question that Martin would score, but the second RBI on that hit was a bit of a surprise. Mark DeRosa threw to second baseman Mike Fontenot for the cutoff, and then Fontenot's throw was far up the third-base line, allowing a hustling Ramirez to score all the way from first.

Loney said he was "looking for something up, something to drive," and the ironic thing is, he might not have even had a chance to look for a pitch had the umpire called Martin out at third on Ramirez's hit. Cubs manager Lou Piniella ran out to dispute it, because it seemed clear that the throw beat Martin to the bag. Replays, however, seemed to indicate that the tag hit him on the shoulder, supporting the call.

Because Andre Ethier struck out after Ramirez's hit, that might have ended the inning, leaving Loney to lead off in the second.

"Russell made a mistake by turning around when he thought the ball was going to be -- the shortstop was going to get to it sort of just backing up and never taking his eye off of it but fortunately we got the call," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "I didn't see a replay but I'm just glad he was safe, obviously."

"It's crazy sometimes, but that's baseball," Loney said. "You never know."

Torre has watched the gradual progress of this player from Houston, drafted 19th overall in 2002 by the Dodgers. "We scratched the surface on how good this kid is going to be," Torre said. "I've said it all year long, he reminds me a lot of Bernie Williams just for his personality, and sometimes he makes you scratch your head and other times you want to hug him. And again, he kept us calm through this series and certainly we were the beneficiaries for it.

"He's a special player. Special player."

Loney was told that Torre had just compared him to Williams -- high praise, considering the mark Williams left, especially as a postseason clutch player. You could tell it wasn't the first time he had heard that.

"It's been great," Loney said. "We always joke around about that."

The Dodgers are going to the NL Championship Series now, thanks largely to a couple of monstrous hits by Loney that sunk the hopes of Cubs fans. They will be stuck with the memory of the grand slam that hushed Wrigley Field on Wednesday, and then of the decisive double that led to a party here on Saturday.

McCourt went over to his first baseman and gave him a hug and a big "James!"

This, McCourt said, is how it used to be around his franchise. This, he said, is a sign of how youth will keep the Dodgers in contention again.

"The Dodgers were always known before having a crop of great young talent, and we're back to doing that," McCourt said. "It's hugely important."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.