ST. PETERSBURG — It was before a game in Kansas City early last season when Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon described James Loney’s play with the word Bradycardia, which is a condition that results in an alarming slow heartbeat.
It was Maddon’s way of saying Loney is calm under pressure, a trait that served him well in 2013, when he enjoyed his best season in the big leagues.
No longer hounded by critics for his lack of power, Loney blended in well in the Rays’ relaxed atmosphere and became a productive bat in Tampa Bay’s offense while continuing the team’s standard of gold glove-caliber play at first base.
For that, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman rewarded Loney with a three-year, $21 million contract that will be announced this week once he passes a physical.
Maddon raved all summer about Loney’s success in pressure situations, citing his ability to hit with two strikes and the ease with which Loney made the often-difficult throw to second base to get a lead runner.
Loney batted a team-high .231 with two strikes. The American League average was .182. As a team, the Rays hit .185 with two strikes.
Loney also hit .299 last year against left-handers.
One June at-bat against the Yankees in New York brought all this into play.
A walk to Evan Longoria loaded the bases with two outs in the seventh inning of a 1-1 game. Yankees manager Joe Girardi called for left-hander Boone Logan. Maddon thought briefly of hitting for Loney, but decided against it. Loney rewarded Maddon with a two-run single to center field on a 1-2 pitch for the final runs of a 3-1 victory.
After the game, Loney talked about how he used to play all the time against lefties earlier in his career.
“It’s one of those things where I’m glad to be back in that situation,” he said.
As for defense, you don’t have to look past the final game of the 2013 American League division series for proof of why Friedman wants Loney around for three more years.
Top of the second inning, bases loaded, one out, no score. Stephen Drew lined the first pitch from Jamey Wright toward right field. Loney jumped to make the catch, saving at least two runs. He first tried to run and double Daniel Nava off first base. When he realized he couldn’t, he turned like Tom Brady calmly looking for an open receiver and threw to shortstop Yunel Escobar, who stepped on second to double up Mike Napoli for the final out of the inning.
Nothing routine about that play, and that’s why Loney is the first first baseman to receive a three-year contract since Carlos Pena after the 2007 season.
A rare back-to-back
The return of Loney means the Rays infield will remain intact for a second consecutive season. You have to go back to the 2008 and 2009 seasons (Pena, second baseman Aki Iwamura, shortstop Jason Bartlett, Longoria) for the last time that happened.
You have to go back to the 1998 and 1999 seasons (the first two in franchise history) for when the Rays fielded the same infield on consecutive Opening Days — Fred McGriff at first, Miguel Cairo at second, Kevin Stocker at shortstop and Wade Boggs at third.
Maddon said he received a bottle of Pinot noir wine from then-Yankees manager Joe Torre in 2006, Maddon’s first year as the Rays manager.
Maddon said he still has the bottle.
Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics said right-hander Alex Colome, whose 2013 season ended because of a right elbow strain, is expected to be ready to pitch in spring training.
Shortstop Hak Ju Lee (left knee surgery) is expected to return from his home in South Korea in January so he can resume his rehab with the training staff.
Right-hander Taylor Guerrieri’s rehab from Tommy John surgery is going well, according to Lukevics. Guerrieri should be ready to pitch by the end of the 2014 season.
Lukevics said the organization has not made a decision on when outfielder Josh Sale will be allowed to resume playing. Sale, the 17th overall pick in the 2010 draft, is serving a suspension for conduct detrimental to the organization. Lukevics said the Rays still want Sale in the organization.
Maddon raised approximately $20,000 during a fundraiser Friday night at 717 South in Tampa for his annual Thanksmas program.
Maddon and his Thanksmas helpers will deliver his traditional Thanksmas Italian holiday dinners this week to those in need at five Bay area shelters for homeless children and adults.