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The Philadelphia Phillies prepped to move into a new ballpark next season by spending millions to sign such free agents as Jim Thome and David Bell.

The Padres, who also will open a new home next spring, took a different approach. To help create some excitement to carry them into Petco Park they . . . fired pitching coach Greg Booker.

So it's probably not surprising that the Phillies are contending while San Diego is skidding toward the worst record in baseball.

Through Friday, the Padres had lost nine straight and 22 of their last 25. And even that doesn't begin to explain how rotten they've been playing. It was bad enough that they were pounded, 10-0, by a mediocre Brewers team Wednesday. Worse, they had fewer hits (two) than Milwaukee's Geoff Jenkins had home runs (three).

Much of their trouble has been related to poor pitching. The Padres had a staff earned run average of 5.78 with 225 walks in 425 innings. They already have used 10 starting pitchers and have given up at least six runs in nine of their last 11 games.

"For us to be a success in this new ballpark, these (pitchers) are going to have to perform better than they are right now," said General Manager Kevin Towers, explaining his decision to ax the pitching coach. "I just didn't see the performance I saw last year."

Booker, not surprisingly, had a different view of the situation.

"You can prepare a donkey to run in the Preakness. But he probably won't run very well," he sniped. "Every year you can't turn four or five or six Double-A pitchers into big-league pitchers. And that's what I was trying to do."

Darren Balsley, who joined the team Monday as Booker's replacement, did not need long to find out what he was up against. He made his first visit to the mound just 19 pitches into his tenure after Randy Keisler gave up two walks and a two-run homer.

If there's a bright spot in all this, it's that the Padres will play the Tigers in a three-game series beginning a week from Tuesday that could go a long way toward determining which team actually is the worst in baseball.

Who said interleague play doesn't create magic?

Hot stuff

The firing of Gary Ward, bringing to four the number of hitting coaches in White Sox manager Jerry Manuel's five-plus years on the job, has led to strong speculation that Manuel could follow shortly. One rumored replacement: former Mets and Phillies second baseman Wally Backman, currently at Double-A Birmingham.

Orioles Hall of Famer Jim Palmer, a broadcaster for the team, and designated hitter David Segui had to be separated by coach Rick Dempsey after Sunday's game. Both combatants refused to talk about what caused the incident, but as Palmer was walking out of the clubhouse, Segui yelled after him, "If you want to be a coach, put on a bleeping uniform."

The Rockies are quietly concerned about right fielder Larry Walker. He has a sore shoulder, he's not hitting and he's owed $12.5 million this year, next year and the year after.

Around the bases

Expos manager Frank Robinson is the latest to signal that he doesn't believe baseball has a future in Montreal. The team is playing well but still isn't drawing. "I talk to people and they tell me it has nothing to do with the team that's here," he said. "They're fed up with what happened in the past and there's the uncertainty about whether we'll be here next season."

Dodgers outfielder Jason Romano leveled a fan who sneaked onto the field and ran toward Brian Jordan on Wednesday. "I just reacted," he said. "If nothing had happened the last year or two, I would have let him go. Knowing what's going on in the world, I had to do something."

The Reds are calling 23-year-olds Austin Kearns and Adam Dunn the Baby Boomers. Kearns co-leads the National League in RBIs and Dunn tops the list in home runs.

The two lowest-scoring teams in the big leagues, Detroit and Cleveland, played each other Monday night. Final score: Indians 10, Tigers 9.

List of the week

Edgar Martinez, the Mariners' ageless DH, needs 17 home runs and 26 doubles to join an exclusive club of players with 2,000 career hits, 1,000 walks, 500 doubles, 300 homers and a .300 batting average. The members: Hank Aaron, George Brett, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams.

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