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A season's worth of frustration over the Padres' new pitcher-friendly Petco Park finally boiled over last August. In a game against the Pirates, San Diego first baseman Phil Nevin raised his hands in exasperation and cursed after a ball he hit 350 feet to dead rightfield--far enough to be a home run in old Qualcomm Stadium--bounced off the wall and he wound up with only a double. When the inning ended, Nevin, who was stranded at second base, flung his helmet and glared in the direction of Padres general manager Kevin Towers's private box.
"All year guys weren't happy. We felt like visitors in our own home," says Towers, whose club was 42-39 at Petco, where it averaged 4.1 runs a game?1.3 fewer than on the road. "Hitters started to think the only way we could hit home runs and score runs was to get out of town."
This year the Padres have thrived at home--a major league best 16-4 through Sunday--by emphasizing small ball and hitting into (instead of trying to hit over) those spacious outfield gaps: 402 feet to left center and 411 to right center. At week's end San Diego (26-18) was a half game behind first-place Arizona (27-18) in the National League West.
"We've gotten away from the ballpark being inside the players' heads," says Padres manager Bruce Bochy. "It's our park. We've embraced it." And Bochy has adjusted by calling more hit-and-runs and letting his players loose on the bases.
Though at week's end San Diego was hitting home runs at Petco at the same rate as in 2004 (0.7 per game), the Padres were hitting for a higher average (.274 compared with .256 last season) and scoring more runs per game (4.7 to 4.1) at home this year.
San Diego has also gotten a boost from an improved bullpen (which has a league-leading 2.94 ERA) and a productive bench. (During a 17-3 stretch the Padres' reserves delivered eight hits that either tied or won games.) Both were areas Towers targeted last winter with his home park in mind.
"We recognized that we'd be playing a lot of one-run games at home," says Towers. "So we knew we'd have to have a stronger bullpen to keep us in the game late and players on the bench who were fast and versatile. We had to give our manager lots of options in late-inning situations."
No player has enjoyed a bigger turnaround at home than 25-year-old shortstop Khalil Greene, who hit .301 on the road in '04 and .241 at Petco. This season Greene, who missed three weeks with a broken right ring finger, was batting .306 with a .556 slugging percentage at home and was the spark during the Padres' eight-game winning streak, which ended with a 5-3 loss to the Mariners last Saturday. In that run, which included six victories at Petco, Greene drove in nine runs, including three game-winning RBIs. Says Greene, "What's amazed me is not what one player has done but how everyone has chipped in."
Greene, who hits line drives to all fields, is just the type of player who should excel at Petco. "Like it was for everyone else," says Towers, "last year was a learning process for him to know what he should do in the ballpark."
Now home, finally, feels like home.