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For Loney, It’s Night to Remember

Times Staff Writer

James Loney sounded for all the world like Reese Witherspoon the night of the Academy Awards, thanking everyone who came to mind for the opportunity, the attention and the moment at hand.

He was nearly as adorable too, his eyes as big as on-deck circles as he prepared to make his major league debut.

“Thanks to Ned and Grady, to scouting director Logan White and Chris Smith -- he’s the area scout who signed me,” Loney gushed. “Oh, and the owner. Thanks to the owner. Make sure you mention him.”

Somebody is always forgotten during those thank-a-thons, and in Loney’s case it was Nomar Garciaparra, without whom he would not have been standing at first base, ignoring intermittent rain and contributing to the Dodgers’ 5-4 victory over the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium in front of a few thousand hardy souls.

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Garciaparra was put on the 15-day disabled list because of a strained ribcage, providing the 21-year-old Loney the chance to single, walk, score a run and make several nifty plays on throws that had squirted out of the wet hands of Dodger infielders.

“I feel better, but the trainers and people who have been around this kind of injury before don’t want me to take a swing and take 1,000 steps backward,” Garciaparra said. “I’ll take two weeks and count on being healthy.”

Dodger starter Brad Penny appeared to be the only player having no trouble throwing the ball, striking out eight in five innings in treacherous conditions that included a 25-minute rain delay in the second, illustrating how far he has come since the worrisome biceps nerve injury in 2004.

He also broke out a split-finger pitch that he hadn’t thrown since before the injury.

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“He kept pumping strike after strike,” Manager Grady Little said.

Jae Seo, working out of the bullpen because the Dodgers don’t need a fifth starter this week, sailed through 2 2/3 innings but gave up three runs in the eighth, the last two on a home run by Adam LaRoche.

With Eric Gagne serving the first day of a two-day suspension, Danys Baez recorded the save, retiring the Braves in the ninth despite giving up a hit, and the Dodgers had their first victory.

Their offense came early. J.D. Drew followed a one-out walk to Jose Cruz Jr. with a two-run home run in the first, and Jeff Kent singled. Brave veteran John Smoltz was curiously careful with Loney, walking him, then gave up RBI singles to Bill Mueller and Jason Repko for a 4-0 Dodger lead.

Drew, who began last season 0 for 25, opened the third inning with a single, making him four for eight. Loney singled with one out and Drew scored on Mueller’s sacrifice fly. LaRoche, the Brave first baseman whose brother is Dodger prospect and Loney friend Andy LaRoche, said to Loney, “That’s the first of many, the first of 3,000.”

Loney, who played in double A last season and expected to open this year at triple-A Las Vegas, nearly floated back to the clubhouse after the game -- and it had nothing to do with the water on the field.

“I didn’t even care about the weather, I was relaxed and playing the game I love to play,” he said.

Loney is known for his exceptional glove, but he led the Dodgers with a .438 batting average in the spring, opening the eyes of Little and General Manager Ned Colletti.

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When Garciaparra was injured Sunday, their first thought was to promote the slender left-hander with the silky style reminiscent of Wes Parker or J.T. Snow.

Loney’s father had the same thought. He was sitting in the stands Monday during the Dodger opener and recognized that Garciaparra was not in the lineup. He called his son, who was in Las Vegas hunting for an apartment.

“My dad called, but I stayed calm,” Loney said. “I was chillin’.”

Jerry Royster, the triple-A manager, called him an hour later and said a flight was booked for Los Angeles.

Loney spent the next several hours on the phone to friends, family and minor league teammates.

“Who didn’t I call,” he said. “I talked to pretty much everybody.”

Then he thanked as many as he could, and ran out to first base.


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