James flirts with history vs. the Pirates
Southpaw takes no-hitter into the seventh inning
PITTSBURGH -- Late Saturday afternoon, Braves manager Bobby Cox turned to his bench coach, Chino Cadahia, and guaranteed that Chuck James was going to get a hit during the evening game that awaited them.
About six hours later, Cox came to the realization that he would have looked even wiser had he made the bold prediction that James wasn't going to allow a hit.
For six innings, this seemed to be a definite possibility. Coming off one of the most frustrating starts of his young career, James displayed a stinginess that had some wondering if he indeed would provide the Braves with their first no-hitter since 1994.
"My stomach even got nauseous for the first time this year," said Cox after watching James surrender just one hit over seven scoreless innings and lead the Braves to a 9-2 win over the Pirates at PNC Park.
While James was surrendering just a seventh-inning, one-out single to Jason Bay, Pirates pitchers were battered during a Braves 14-hit attack that was highlighted with Scott Thorman's two-homer, five-RBI performance. Willie Harris also continued his torrid pace with a career-high four hits.
All of the contributions, which were made while Chipper Jones rested a couple of sore hands, helped the Braves increase their winning streak to a season-high five games and gain a 1 1/2-game lead over the Mets in the National League East standings.
"With Chipper out of the lineup, it was important for us to put some runs up on the board," said Thorman after enjoying the first multi-homer game of his career. "We did that early and Chuckie did a tremendous job of pitching."
While the Braves were excited to see James provide his strongest effort of the season, the postgame celebration centered around the fact that Cox had just notched his 2,195th win and moved ahead of Sparky Anderson into sole possession of fourth place on the all-time managerial wins list.
"He tries to play everything off like it's not a big deal," said Jeff Francoeur, who notched his National League-high 22nd two-out RBI during a three-hit performance. "But for us it was a big deal."
True to form, Cox downplayed the accomplishment and instead chose to focus most of the postgame attention toward James, whose control problems had prevented him from completing more than six innings in any of his previous seven starts this season. He entered this sixth inning with perfection intact and exited it with his first career no-hitter still a possibility.
James, who matched the career-low one-hit effort he posted against the Mets on Sept. 4 last year, saw his bid for a perfect game erased when he issued consecutive walks to begin the sixth inning. The previous time he'd encountered a three-ball count came in the first inning, when Pirates leadoff hitter Chris Duffy drew a 3-2 count.
"Today was a good confidence booster," James said. "I just tried to put everything behind me. If they were going to beat me, I was going to pound the strike zone and make them hit it."
While throwing 63 of his 99 pitches for strikes, James got optimal movement on his changeup and really didn't allow the Pirates to make solid contact through the first six innings. But when he left a changeup up in the strike zone to Bay with out in the seventh inning, the Pirates left fielder made him pay, delivering a single to left-center field.
"I wasn't thinking about a no-hitter or anything like that," James said. "It was just like, 'Alright, I've given up a hit, I've given up plenty of those this year.' It was a bad changeup. I kind of left it up. It was one of those right when it comes out of your hand, you're like, 'Here it goes.'"
After needing 94 pitches to complete a season-short 3 2/3-inning effort against the Padres on Monday, James indicated that he'd taken some positives out of the outing. Just two days earlier, he found a mechanical flaw and had opted to raise his arm slot back up to where it was during last year's successful rookie season.
From an immediate standpoint, the alteration brought control problems that were evidenced by the fact that he threw first-pitch strikes to just five of the last 15 Padres batters he faced. But over the long haul, he knew the adjustment would provide him the deception that was realized by the Pirates.
"He had great deception tonight because nobody was on anything," said Cox, who saw James throw first-pitch strikes to 17 of the 24 batters that he faced.
With a seven-run lead that was built with the strength of Thorman's three-run, second-inning homer off Pirates starter Tony Armas, Cox opted to lift James after the seventh inning.
"He had right at 100 [pitches]," Cox said. "I thought it was time for him to get out of there and finish on a super note."
After the Pirates tallied two runs in the eighth inning off Chad Paronto, Thorman capped his career-best night with a two-run ninth-inning homer off Jonah Bayliss.
Cox didn't predict Thorman's two-homer night. Nor was he correct in his prediction about James. But at least he seemingly understood that his young southpaw was about to do something rather noteworthy.
"I thought he would have a real good game," Cox said. "The knack is getting ahead of hitters and throwing strikes. He accomplished that very well."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.