J.D. Drew unexpectedly had bolted over the winter, exercising the escape clause in his contract, and he took one of the club’s most potent bats to the free-agent market with him. Thus, in an attempt to make up for that loss of power, the Dodgers re-signed Nomar Garciaparra last November to be their primary first baseman, giving him a two-year, $18.5 million contract. Although no one was willing to admit it at the time, that all but sealed Loney’s fate, at least where the season-opening roster was concerned. Ultimately, it didn’t matter that he lit up the Grapefruit League because he was at a stage of his development where he needed to play regularly, and that wasn’t going to happen in Los Angeles. So after taking his aforementioned two days to stew, Loney set about trying to change perceptions. He didn’t really change anything about his approach, which is as good a reason as any why he never hit another home run after that season-opening dinger despite playing at Las Vegas’ hitter-friendly Cashman Field. But what Loney did was maintain a professional work ethic and a consistent, mechanical swing. The result was that he finally did get the call to the majors on June 10. Since then, he has batted .322, slammed 16 doubles and 11 home runs, become a fixture in the everyday lineup and planted a seed in the minds of club officials that perhaps he can develop into some semblance of a traditional, power-hitting first baseman. “Right now, the home runs are just happening,” Loney said. “I won’t ever try to hit home runs. I’m just trying to put the sweet spot of the bat on the ball.” So far in this critical, late-season series with San Diego – a series in which the Dodgers could inch to within 11/2 games of the wild-card-leading Padres if they can win tonight’s rubber game – Loney has utilized that sweet spot well enough to go 6-for-9 with two home runs, four RBIs and four runs scored. Meanwhile, his 11 homers this season have come in a total of 79 games, and they are almost double the six homers Garciaparra has in 113 games. And don’t forget, it was Loney’s emergence that forced Garciaparra across the diamond to third base. “He has always been that type of hitter,” Dodgers manager Grady Little said. “But in the short period of time I have known him, he has never gotten to where he thinks he has to hit home runs, because he isn’t reading all the articles saying he needs to be a power-hitting first baseman. He is just putting good swings on the ball, and he is hitting every ball that he hits hard. “When a guy is seeing the ball as well as he is and making as good a contact as he is making, there is no telling what he will be able to do.” If Loney can continue to hit this well, it will give the Dodgers (76-69) renewed hope in the hunt for a playoff berth. Although they remain tied with Colorado for third in the NL West, six games behind division-leading Arizona, the chase for the wild card suddenly doesn’t seem so daunting. Chad Billingsley (11-4) held the Padres to a run on five hits over six strong innings. email@example.comWant local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! BASEBALL: Dodgers first baseman gets single, double, homer in victory over the Padres. By Tony Jackson STAFF WRITER Lorenzo Bundy wasn’t expecting to have James Loney on his Opening Day roster. Bundy, after all, manages the Dodgers’ triple-A Las Vegas affiliate, and given the spectacular spring training Loney had just put up, triple-A was the last place anybody expected to find the highly touted first base prospect. Mostly, though, it was the last place Loney expected to find himself. “He was disappointed, and we understood,” Bundy said Wednesday night, just after Loney had singled, doubled and hit his fifth home run in the last six games to lead the Dodgers to a 6-1 victory over the San Diego Padres before 43,699 at Dodger Stadium. “But we always have what we call the 48-hour cooling-off period. You have that much time to be (ticked) off, but come Opening Day, you start working. “So on his first swing of the season, he hit a home run. I asked him where that came from. He said he just wanted to show me he could do it.” That swing was symbolic for the line drive-hitting Loney, who probably would have been the Dodgers’ Opening Day first baseman if not for the long-held perception that he didn’t have the power the Dodgers needed from their corner infielders at that particular time.