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Sixth-inning blow mars James' outing

Sixth-inning blow mars James' outing

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SAN FRANCISCO -- If Barry Bonds had chosen to play, it would've been tough for him to be a greater challenge than the sixth inning has been for Chuck James this season.

While he's experienced sixth innings far worse than the one he endured during Wednesday night's 2-1 loss to the Giants at AT&T Park, few have created as much frustration for the southpaw, who over the course of his past three starts has been victimized by either his bullpen or his offense.

"He threw another great one," said Braves manager Bobby Cox after seeing James' solid six-inning effort marred only by Rich Aurilia's decisive leadoff homer in the sixth. "He's had nothing but good ones. We just couldn't get him any runs tonight."

James, who allowed two earned runs and seven hits in six innings, has won just twice while posting a 1.47 ERA in his past five starts. His scoreless July 14 outing against the Pirates was ruined with a blown save opportunity. These past two outings have been marred by an offense that has totaled just two runs while he was in line for a decision.

This latest lack of support came courtesy of the offensive struggles created by Giants starter Noah Lowry, who surrendered a run before recording his second out of the evening and then blanked the Braves the rest of the way over the course of an eight-inning effort.

"It seems like every night [James] is going out there giving up one or two runs and pitching six or seven innings," Jeff Francoeur said. "That's all you can ask for. We just couldn't score any runs for him tonight."

After being handcuffed by Lowry most of the evening, Francoeur created some hope with a ninth-inning leadoff double against Brad Hennessey. But three batters later, he found himself standing at third, watching pinch-hitter Kelly Johnson swing and miss the final pitch of the game.

"We had them on the ropes there at the end and just couldn't come through," said Cox, who now finds his club trailing the front-running Mets by four games in the National League East race.

When the Braves attempt to rebound in Thursday's series finale, they'll likely be surrounded by the hoopla created by Barry Bonds, who is two homers away from tying Hank Aaron's all-time record of 755. Having played the entirety of Tuesday's 13-inning game, Bonds opted not to play in this one.

Through the first five innings, James and Lowry both allowed just one run. The Giants' first run came in the third inning, when Pedro Feliz scored Randy Winn with a two-out single. Their decisive run came when Aurilia drilled an 0-1 fastball just over the left-field wall for his fourth homer of the season.

"I actually missed up and over the middle the middle a lot tonight and fortunately I got away with it," James said. "That time I didn't."

James, who has seen high pitch counts lead to him completing at least seven innings in three of his first 21 starts this season, has allowed 17 homers and seven of them have come in the sixth inning.

Unfortunately for James, he has far too often seen early-inning success marred after the fifth inning. Entering the game, opponents were hitting .240 against him through the first five innings and .403 (23-for-57) after the start of the sixth.

"I don't think it's an inning thing," said James, who lost for the first time since June 24. "Today was just another day where I was fighting to keep the ball down. When you're fighting to keep the ball down in my case, you throw a lot of pitches. It just always seems to come in that sixth inning because that's the point that I get around that pitch count."

Aurilia's homer came on James' 92nd pitch of the evening. By the time he completed the sixth inning, the southpaw had thrown 105 pitches, leaving him one shy of the season-high total he registered Friday, while limiting the Cardinals to one run over seven innings.

"When you throw 105 [pitches] in five or six innings all the time, that's an awful lot of work in those amount of innings," Cox said.

Meanwhile, it took Lowry just 104 pitches to limit the Braves to one run and seven hits in eight innings. His third pitch of the night -- an 0-2 delivery -- hit Yunel Escobar, who scored with the help of consecutive one-out singles by Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones. The southpaw escaped the first inning by inducing Francoeur to deliver a double-play grounder.

With runners at first and second base and one out in the seventh inning, the Braves seemingly had a serious threat. But it was subdued when Julio Franco's sharp one-out liner to center was knocked down in the late-evening air.

"If he hits it during the first three innings, it's way out," Cox said. "He crushed the ball. That would have been a three-run homer."

Unfortunately for the Braves, there was really only one homer hit on the evening, and as James knows all too well, it once again ruined what began as a pretty good evening.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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