SAN DIEGO -- It was the top of the seventh inning of a game most of the baseball world ignored, and the chess match was just beginning.
The last-place San Diego Padres were leading the next-to-last-place Los Angeles Dodgers by a run, and Dodgers manager Don Mattingly sent up a pinch hitter for his pitcher. Padres manager Bud Black countered by bringing in a new pitcher, and Mattingly countered by sending up another pinch hitter to pinch hit for the first pinch hitter, who already had been officially entered into the game and consequently was now done for the evening.
The name of that first pinch hitter, the guy who became nothing more than a footnote in the box score of the Dodgers' 3-0 loss to the Padres before 25,371 on Wednesday night at Petco Park, was James Loney.
It is a long, hard fall from being a cornerstone to being a footnote, but Loney has taken that plunge in remarkably quick fashion in the past couple of years. This was one of a small handful of players around whom the Dodgers once built their future. But in a key moment of a not-so-key game and at a point when that future seems, at least for the moment, rather bleak, Mattingly thought nothing of burning a player who once was one of the Dodgers' biggest RBI threats, rendering him unavailable for the rest of the game without ever having stepped into the batter's box.
Loney was the first player drafted by the Dodgers after Logan White took over the team's amateur scouting department in 2002. The guy who posted the eighth-highest batting average (.331) in franchise history as a rookie in 2007. The guy who averaged 34 doubles and 89 RBIs in his first three full big league seasons.
That guy is hitting .235 since last year's All-Star break, with eight homers and 59 RBIs, and might be playing his final two months in a Dodgers uniform.
"I'm playing for today, and whatever happens, happens," Loney said before the game. "I'm playing to be the best player I can be. They know I can play better than I have over the course of this year."
They know he can. But they don't know that he will. And that is why Loney probably is in grave danger of leaving town the same way another onetime cornerstone, Russell Martin, did last winter, with the Dodgers declining to offer him a contract for next year.
In a pregame media session with Mattingly, I asked him whether, when he thinks about what he wants this team to accomplish in the next few years, he still sees Loney as a part of it. Mattingly's answer was even less committal than I had expected.
"I don't know," he said. "This probably isn't the right time to even talk about it. We're just trying to win a game every day."
And with the Dodgers (50-60) trying to win as many of those games as possible and climb as many spots as they can in the National League West -- they could have moved out of fourth place with a victory but instead fell to 11½ games behind the division-leading San Francisco Giants -- Mattingly has decided the best formula isn't having Loney at first base every day.
Since the Dodgers acquired Juan Rivera during the All-Star break, Rivera has started seven of the 18 games at first base and six of the other 11 in left field. That means that although Loney and left fielder Tony Gwynn are still the primary guys at their positions, they aren't necessarily the every-day guys.
The way Mattingly explained it, Rivera, Gwynn and Loney are each now starting roughly two of every three games. But there is no way to predict who will go where on a given day. For instance, Loney started on Tuesday night with Hiroki Kuroda, a ground ball pitcher, on the mound because infield defense became especially important. But with notorious fly ball pitcher Ted Lilly (7-11) going in this one, outfield defense was key, so Gwynn played left and right-handed-hitting Rivera supplanted Loney at first even though righty Tim Stauffer (7-8) was the starting pitcher for the Padres.
Rivera has hit .304 since being traded from the Toronto Blue Jays, with five doubles, a homer and five RBIs in 56 at-bats. More importantly, whenever he has started, he always has hit fifth, directly behind NL Most Valuable Player contender Matt Kemp. Mattingly explained that this was because Rivera provides more protection for Kemp, who often is pitched around because of the sorry state of the rest of the Dodgers lineup.
"I think whoever is playing the best is going to play," Loney said. "That is how it should be. I have had a bad month, and we are trying to win baseball games."
The month to which Loney was referring was July, but his slump has stretched into August. He is hitting .163 with six RBIs since July 1. Really, though, he hasn't been the same since, again, last year's All-Star break.
My pet theory has long been that with all the talk for all those years that he needed to hit for more power, he might have felt pressure to do so and thus tinkered so much with a swing that was once pretty productive even without a lot of home runs -- he has never hit more than 15 in a season -- that he can't find his way back to it.
Perhaps that is why a guy who hit 41 doubles last year has all of 13 this season.
Loney denies this, although that might just be his way of letting others off the hook.
"They never came to me with anything like that," he said. "They have always just wanted me to do what I can do and do it the best that I can. Just going out there and having that focus on every play, defense, baserunning and just competing."
Mattingly, who was the team's hitting coach the previous 2½ seasons while then-manager Joe Torre made no secret of his belief that Loney could hit a lot more homers one day, said he never pushed Loney to change.
"I know for me, from the standpoint of working with him in the cage, I never really worried about him [hitting for power]," Mattingly said. "I always thought it would come with time, with him knowing the pitchers a little bit better and anticipating a little bit better. I was kind of that way, that line-drive hitter who could ping doubles but not hit very many homers, and then all of a sudden, I learned to do that. I always looked at James the same way, that his power would come with more time."
Loney is making $4.875 million this year, and he has one more winter of arbitration eligibility. Simple logic would suggest that the Dodgers won't go there with him this year, that if he doesn't agree to a salary for 2012 far below the roughly $5.5 million he would stand to make through arbitration, they will simply bid him adieu.
The Dodgers need to add power to their punchless lineup. Even if Andre Ethier gets back to his normal home run production next year to complement Kemp, they still need a third big bat. It doesn't appear as if Loney is ever going to be that guy, and given that he plays what traditionally is a power position, the Dodgers would have to add a power bat at a non-power position -- perhaps a Jeff Kent-type player at second or a Cal Ripken type at short -- to make up for that.
Throughout his career, Loney has been a stand-up guy, the kind of player Dodgers fans could easily embrace if he weren't perceived as the poster child for the team's maddening lack of offensive punch. The harsh reality, though, is that his time in Los Angeles probably is winding down, that if he ever does regain that sweet, line-drive stroke that was such an integral part of this lineup from 2006 to 2009, he will regain it somewhere else.
"I saw it for two years, where he ended up at .300 with 90 RBI, and you didn't know how he did it, but he did it," Mattingly said. "It made you think that if he could ever hit for power, he could really go off. I always felt like you would watch him take batting practice and see [the power], but he wouldn't be able to take that into a game.
"I'm not saying I don't think it's ever going to happen, but it hasn't to this point, and it has been a long time."
Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.