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AROUND THE HORN / ROSS NEWHAN

Hitting Is Padres' Pet Peeve

June 20, 2004|ROSS NEWHAN

The way Kevin Towers figures it, his job as general manager of the San Diego Padres is to construct a competitive roster, not reconstruct the ballpark in which that roster plays its home games, no matter how much his players would like him to do just that.

In mid-June, the Padres are already experiencing something of the dog days at Petco Park.

The complaints heard early from Phil Nevin and other Padre power hitters about the hitting background at the new facility and their inability to drive the ball out in right center haven't abated. At this point, the Padres seem to have let the conditions there become a mental leash of sorts, and Towers suggested in a phone interview that enough was enough.

"Is it a concern?" Towers said. "Most definitely. It's been a hot topic of conversation every day since the start of the season, and it's getting old.

"I wish there was some magic formula or curse I could take off, but I can't. There's nothing that either [Manager Bruce Bochy] or myself can do about it. We're not going to move the walls in here next week. It is what it is.

"I mean, all we can do is provide enough information [to the players] to show them that other people are scoring runs here. There's enough data that you'd think they could look at it and say, 'It's not the ballpark, it's us.' "

Entering the weekend, the Padres had similar home (16-15) and road (17-17) records, but it's as if they have a split personality.

They were batting .292 on the road, averaging 5.2 runs with 26 homers in the 34 games.

At home, they were hitting .243, averaging 3.6 runs with 16 homers in the 31 games.

Tuesday, the Padres returned to Petco to begin a stretch in which they were to play 23 of 26 games against teams then last or next to last in their divisions.

With the Dodgers and San Francisco Giants tackling tougher slates over the same period, the Padres had an opportunity to take charge in the desolate National League West.

However, they were swept in a three-game series by the suddenly streaking Tampa Bay Devil Rays as Petco partisans vocally displayed their displeasure and Towers probably hit the speed dial again, hoping to reach Kansas City counterpart Allard Baird, who is shopping Carlos Beltran.

Of course, the Padres could find help from within if Ryan Klesko returns to the form that had produced nine consecutive seasons of 20 or more home runs coming into 2004. Then again, Klesko may have misplaced that form, hitting only three home runs after the All-Star break last year and only one this year while basically sidelined since late April by a rib muscle injury.

Now, Klesko says, he is focusing on line drives as a way of regaining his stroke and psyche in Petco, where the Devil Rays had no problem enjoying their stay.

"If you hit it good here, you'll get it regardless," said Tampa Bay third baseman Aubrey Huff in a verbal shot of another kind.

On the phone, Towers expressed resignation. The Padres had lost 10 of their last 12 games at Petco, and maybe that represented a necessary rock bottom.

"Bruce has talked to these guys until he's blue in the face," Towers said, referring to Bochy and his players. "Ultimately, they're going to have to figure it out on their own. If they want to be playing games here in October, they're going to have to find a way to get it out of their head and turn it into the home-field advantage that it should be."

*

The Oakland Athletics have found a way to compensate for the loss of second baseman Mark Ellis, out for the season because of a dislocated shoulder, and third baseman Eric Chavez, who could sit out another month because of a broken wrist, but they have found little relief for the preseason loss of closer Keith Foulke to the Boston Red Sox as a free agent.

The late-inning void may not be as debilitating as the clubhouse consternation that it seems to have created.

"I think we need to start getting the job done," starter Tim Hudson said, obviously frustrated after Jim Mecir turned his 4-2 lead into a 5-4 loss at St. Louis on Thursday.

Hudson is 7-2 with a 2.78 earned-run average but could be more than halfway to 20 wins if it weren't for five no-decisions, four coming after handing leads to the bullpen.

"I know the guys are trying," Hudson said of the relief corps. "Sometimes trying is not enough. We've got to get it done, regardless."

The usually adaptable A's went from fireman-of-the-year Foulke to former Seattle Mariner setup man Arthur Rhodes, who had blown five of 14 save opportunities entering the weekend.

Overall, the A's bullpen had converted only 12 of 25 saves with an 11-13 record and 4.58 ERA after a three-game implosion in St. Louis.

Oakland opens a four-game series with the Angels in Anaheim on Monday night still leading the AL West and hopeful that Justin Lehr, recalled Wednesday from Sacramento, where he had been serving as the triple-A closer, can provide answers, although Manager Ken Macha said he was reluctant to use a rookie in that role.

At this point, however, the A's are conducting open auditions, or as Assistant General Manager David Forst put it: "There is not much order to the bullpen right now. It's the guy that's going to get the outs."

*

After his 44-save, 84-appearance campaign with the A's in 2002, Billy Koch -- traded for Foulke -- had been a bust with the Chicago White Sox, who traded him Thursday to the Florida Marlins as a setup man for Armando Benitez.

Koch was ecstatic.

"I don't have to sit here and rot," he said of his non-role with Chicago, "and the White Sox don't have to have a heart attack every time I come in the game."

The White Sox had recently replaced Koch with Shingo Takatsu, Japan's all-time leading closer. Takatsu, a submariner, had struck out 17 in his first 24 1/3 innings with Chicago and converted his first two save opportunities.

Said Atlanta Brave Manager Bobby Cox, when asked his first impression of Takatsu:

"Unhittable."

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