Padres manager Bruce Bochy yesterday said Mark Kotsay is "unfazed" by where he hits in the batting order. Which is good since the center fielder hit cleanup yesterday for the first time this season and only the second time as a Padre. "Think I can hit in every slot before the season is over?" joked Kotsay while striking the pose of the pitcher he once was for Cal State Fullerton. Seriously, Kotsay has already hit in five different spots in the order this year, and last season he batted in six positions. He was most productive in the leadoff spot, where he batted .351 for 36 games. This season he has already hit first (1-for-5 in one game), second (8-for-32), third (13-for-50) and fifth (3-for-8 the two games previous to last night) as well as fourth. "I just wish I was hitting better," said Kotsay, who has had his swing inhibited recently by a back strain. After hitting better than .290 the past two seasons, Kotsay is off to a .268 start and is hitting only .160 (4-for-25) with runners in scoring position. He has one homer and five RBI in 95 at-bats – below expected production for someone the Padres were counting on to produce in the heart of the order. "Mark has a track record," said Bochy. "He'll get back to where he's always been." Which is why Kotsay was in the cleanup spot last night sd union
The Padres have several ailing pitchers, plus a starting catcher on the disabled list, but Mark Kotsay's persistent back problems could be of greater long-term concern. Kotsay, 27, is a core player whose contract is guaranteed through 2006.
Back pain benched the center fielder yesterday and today will put him in an X-ray room.
"We'll go and get some X-rays and see if there's anything else wrong than the spasms," said Kotsay, who has fought back ailments for parts of the last two seasons.
Publicly, Kotsay has downplayed the ailment, and manager Bruce Bochy said Kotsay could start tonight's game.
But Kotsay is said to be in great pain. His meager offensive numbers – one home run, six RBI – suggest his performance is affected.
Assistant trainer Jim Daniel said the abnormal curvature of Kotsay's lower back means Kotsay has to work harder to stay limber.
"It causes the muscles to shorten and tighten, and it's a constant battle to keep those muscles stretched out," Daniel said. "It can lead to tight hamstrings."
Kotsay said the current ailment dates to last month, when he slammed into the wall at Coors Field. A center fielder's body takes a beating, particularly for the Padres, who've posted an ERA of 5.54 and start two corner outfielders who have average range. Last September, the Padres considered moving Kotsay to right field – his former position – but his likely successor in center, Gene Kingsale, was traded in November.
MILWAUKEE – Center fielder Mark Kotsay could go on the disabled list unless his back shows marked improvement by tomorrow.
"We're coming to a decision – we'll know by Wednesday," said Kotsay, who isn't playing the first two games here.
Kotsay, 27, has a protruding L-5 disk. He is taking medication but might have a cortisone injection later in the week.
"I've been told I can't hurt it worse, but it is not getting better," he said. "The three-hour flight here didn't help."
The injury is not a recurrence of the back spasms Kotsay had late last season. "This is different and in a different place," he said,
His current back problems began April 19 in Colorado.
"I backed hard into the wall in center on a catch," Kotsay said. "I played the next day, but it was stiff."
On April 22, Kotsay was forced out of the game after one at-bat.
Kotsay was hitting .288 when he first hurt his back. He has hit .200 since with only one RBI in 60 at-bats.
"I think his back has affected his play more than Mark will admit," said Padres manager Bruce Bochy. "It's affected his swing as well as his running, which affects his outfield play ... We've talked to Mark about the disabled list. He's not making any progress. He could need time for this to clear up."
If Kotsay goes on the disabled list, the Padres might call up 24-year-old outfielder Jason Bay from Class AAA Portland. Bay was the Pacific Coast League's Player of the Month for April, although a recent slump has dropped his average to .312. He has 10 homers and 32 RBI with 10 stolen bases.
Although Bay has played right field for the Beavers, the Padres believe he has the range and ability to play center. By Bill Center UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER