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Loney and Kotchman get first dibs

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

LOS ANGELES – The game moves to a rhythm, often imperceptibly so, and there are men – even young men – who move along with it.

They fit. They feel the game. They're ballplayers; not above it, arrogantly, and not beneath it, frantically.

A veteran baseball scout leaned back in his seat behind home plate at Dodger Stadium recently and considered the two first basemen in town, two young players who bat and throw from the left side, who share discerning hitting eyes and soft hands, who were chosen in consecutive amateur drafts in the middle of the first rounds, who carry themselves as though they allow the game to carry them.

James Loney, wearing the blue of the Los Angeles Dodgers, was wearing out the left-center field gap in batting practice. In a few days he'd be in Anaheim for the Freeway Series, where he'd alternate at first base with Casey Kotchman of the Los Angeles Angels.

They come from baseball stock, from fathers who reared them on the game, and they arrived in the big leagues as comfortably as that, with pretty swings and nimble feet and broad shoulders.

"The thing they both bring to the table is first basemen with great baseball instincts," the scout said finally. "You don't find a lot of first basemen with superior instincts. Both turn hits into outs. They make good throws across the diamond. They're both real good ballplayers.

"They look the part and play the part. They're growing up here."

In their mid-twenties, there is elegance in what they do.

Asked if Loney, who, at 24, is in his first full big-league season, reminded him at all of Mark Grace, Dodgers manager Joe Torre nodded.

"Yeah, but with pop," he said.

Kotchman, at 25, is in his second full season.

"I love the glove," Kotchman's teammate Gary Matthews Jr. said. "He's becoming, I think, more of a complete player. I was really surprised he didn't get any votes for the Gold Glove last year. I mean, no votes? Casey goes out, he makes spectacular plays and catches everything he gets to."

Quietly, amid the offseason trade winds that have blown their names to Florida and Maryland and back, Loney and Kotchman are becoming cornerstones for two of baseball's featured franchises, separated only by a stop-and-go stretch of freeway. They share the potential of batting titles and Gold Gloves, representing not the power of the prototypical corner infielder, but of a generation of rounded skills that is sure to follow drug testing.

When Loney was growing up, his father, Marion, often coached from the bench. When he didn't, he coached from behind the chain-link fence. Kotchman's father, Tom, is a longtime scout and minor-league manager for the Angels. Tom managed against Loney in 2002, when Loney batted .371 for Great Falls in the Pioneer League. Loney and Kotchman played together for the Scottsdale Scorpions in the 2003 Arizona Fall League, alternating at first base.

"Some of it is God given, but both James and Casey, they're very good around the bag," Tom Kotchman said. "Pitching and defense is the game, and there are certain players on each team that you'll sacrifice five to 10 home runs for the defense you're going to get."

And now they hold jobs in the middle of batting orders on contending teams, both on pace to drive in about 100 runs, both as likely to hit the ball to center and left fields as they are to their pull field, right, and both about as likely to walk as strike out.

In the Dodgers' clubhouse, they think of Loney as involuntarily, well, goofy.

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James Loney is in his third season with the Dodgers.
(Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Inside Edge: Loney/Kotchman power analysis

Speaking on that subject in the dugout, Torre said, "Bernie Williams. He reminds me of Bernie Williams."

Loney happened by.

Loney: "You're talking about me, huh?"

Torre: "Yeah. That's a compliment."

Torre turned away from Loney and smiled.

"His personality, he can be off somewhere else," he said.

He then turned and shouted at Loney, "What'd somebody ask you the other day? Why we weren't as good on the road?"

Loney grinned and said, "I thought it might be something in the food."

"In Arizona?"

"Yeah, those burrito burgers or tacos or something. I don't know what those were."

Couldn't have been the Diamondbacks' pitching staff.

"Bernie," Torre said. "He was one of the best."

Nodding back to Loney, he added, "Perfect. You want to hug him."

He has played every game, struggling now against lefties but grinding nevertheless. He always has hit left-handers before, figures he'll stay at it, hit them again. Over parts of three seasons, Loney has batted .311.

"Obviously," Loney said, speaking broadly, "they trust you with the uniform on. So you should trust yourself. Just have fun with it and use the window, however long you have. I'm just going to be me, whatever that is."

Since the start of last season, Kotchman is batting .297.

"So far, so good," he said. "I feel good. We're done with the first month or so and that's all it is, just one month."

He was hitting .333 last June when a throw from Dodgers catcher Russell Martin to second base split his helmet and left him with a concussion. He returned nine days later, but by the time his head had cleared, more than a month later, he had lost about 50 points on his batting average.

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A trainer examines Casey Kotchman who was injured when a pickoff throw hit Kotchman in the helmet on June 16, 2007.
(AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Inside Edge: Loney/Kotchman power analysis

Kotchman has a history of fluke injuries and ailments, including losing nearly all of the 2006 season because of mononucleosis. He is healthy now and had a huge April (.344 average, six home runs, 19 RBI) before tapering – with the rest of the Angels – in May.

"We're all trying to strive for consistency," he said. "That's how you're measured in this game."

There was a time, Angels manager Mike Scioscia said, when Kotchman was too eager to hit home runs, despite having never hit more than 10 in a minor-league season (He hit 11, in 443 big-league at-bats, last season). Scioscia believed Kotchman swung to live up to the position, the notion that first basemen must drive the ball out of the park.

"Casey, I think he's becoming comfortable with his talent," Scioscia said. "There's nothing wrong with that hard ground ball with guys in scoring position. His talent isn't sit back, back-leg hitting balls out of the park. He needs to knock in runs. He puts the ball in play. That's his talent. His ability is as a guy you can hit in the middle of a championship lineup. Definitely I think he's fulfilling his potential. He's quietly confident he can be the best first baseman in the league."

For the moment, they're sorting out the best first baseman in the city. For the moment, it's too close to call.

Kotchman grinned at the comparison.

"I've vaguely heard it mentioned before," he said. "I'll take it as a compliment because he had a real good year last year, when he had a chance to play every day."

Loney nodded.

"He's a great player," he said. "It definitely looks like he feels like he belongs out there."

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