Errant throw sinks Braves in Philly
James settles in after rough start, but so does Hamels
PHILADELPHIA -- If the weather had been golf appropriate, it might be fitting to say Chuck James and Cole Hamels both made good use of their mulligans. Then again, without the autumn-like conditions, these two young southpaws might not have hit such wayward shots off the first tee.
Yet by the time the Phillies completed their 5-4 win over the Braves at Citizens Bank Park on Friday night, there wasn't much reason to dwell on the errant first innings shared by these pitchers. Instead, the most glaring moment came courtesy of shortstop Yunel Escobar's errant seventh-inning throw.
"Tonight might have been one of the weirdest games I've ever been a part of," said Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur after seeing the teams trade four-run first innings and then find themselves in what was relatively an offensive freeze.
Unfortunately for the Braves, the freeze was lifted just enough for the Phillies to score the decisive unearned run off Peter Moylan in the seventh. Jayson Werth reached with a leadoff single, moved to second on a sacrifice bunt and then crossed the plate when Escobar's errant throw bounced into the first row of the stands.
Escobar, who had a chance to make amends with a runner on third and two outs in the ninth, went deep in the hole to secure Gregg Dobbs' sharp grounder. When the strong-armed shortstop planted to throw, there was definitely a chance to record an out. But the throw short-hopped Mark Teixeira and bounced out of play.
"It's an impossible hop," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He had to try. A lot of guys don't get to that ball, probably."
Through the first four games of this important road trip against the Mets and Phillies, the Braves have suffered both of their losses with the potential tying run on third base. This latest instance came against Tom Gordon, who managed to complete a scoreless ninth despite throwing just 10 of his 19 pitches for strikes.
After Brian McCann drew a four-pitch leadoff walk, Gordon benefited from Kelly Johnson swinging at a 2-0 pitch below his knees. One pitch later, Johnson would register the first of the three consecutive groundouts that ended the game and sent the Braves into third place in the National League East race, behind the first-place Mets and second-place Phillies.
With Mets closer Billy Wagner, who escaped the bases-loaded, nobody-out threat the Braves staged against him on Wednesday night, blowing just his second save opportunity of the season on Friday night at Shea Stadium against the Marlins, the Braves remain 3 1/2 games behind the Mets. But they now trail the Phillies by a half-game.
"When we jumped out with four runs, especially against [Hamels], I thought it was going to be a good day," James said. "When you come out with four runs against that guy, you want to come out with a win."
After both James and Hamels surrendered four runs and five hits in the first inning, it seemed like the bullpen doors might open early and often. But neither of these young hurlers would allow another hit or run the rest of the way.
Hamels, who has won each of the three decisions he's gained in four starts against the Braves this year, didn't allow a hit after the first inning. The only thing separating him from the post-first-inning perfection James experienced was an error and a walk.
"Neither pitcher was making good pitches in the first inning and then they were making nothing but good pitches," said Cox, who saw James end his six-inning effort with five consecutive perfect innings.
James surrendered hits to the first three hitters he faced and saw his four-run lead cut in half when he recorded his first out -- a Ryan Howard sacrifice fly. Two batters later, Wes Helms drilled a two-run homer off the left-field foul pole.
While James didn't blame the cold weather, he benefited at least twice from the strong winds that were blowing toward the plate after the first inning. As for Hamels, he was fortunate that Matt Diaz's opposite-field, second-inning drive got knocked down just short of the right-field wall.
"After four runs in the first inning, you're thinking, 'Oh Lord, what's going to be in [store] for the day?'" James said. "There was nothing left but to relax and try to get back on track."
Unfortunately for James, who has allowed four earned runs in three straight starts, he wasn't the only one who found a post first-inning groove. After needing 37 pitches to escape the Braves' four-run first inning, which included a Diaz solo homer and McCann two-run double, Hamels regained command of his fastball and thus was able to once again dazzle the Braves with his patented changeup.
"We know how good Cole Hamels is," Francoeur said. "When we got four off him in the first inning, we felt great. I don't think he was really locating his fastball in that first inning."
Hamels, who is 11-2 with a 3.07 ERA in his past 16 home starts, ended up throwing 102 pitches during a seven-inning effort. The only thing preventing him from matching James' post-first-inning perfection was a third-inning error and Escobar's two-out, fourth-inning walk.
The Braves, who have lost four straight against the Phillies, also threatened in the eighth with Francoeur's two-out double off Antonio Alfonseca. But the former Atlanta reliever had no trouble ending the inning with a weak dribbler off the bat of Andruw Jones, who has just two hits in his past 20 at-bats.
"It's never fun losing," McCann said. "But when you have a chance to win and a couple of hits come this way, it's kind of harder to swallow."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.