ATLANTA -- When Braves manager Bobby Cox strolled toward the mound to remove Chuck James in the fourth inning at Turner Field on Thursday night, his primary intention was to keep his team in the game. His secondary motive might have been to prevent any other Giants from getting any closer to Hank Aaron's career homer total. While Aaron's mark remains just as safe at it's been since Barry Bonds surpassed it last week, James' status as a reliable starter has suddenly become a little shaky. Of course, this isn't exactly a welcoming development for the Braves, who know the importance the back end of the rotation will play in the heart of their postseason chase. With James surrendering a career-high four homers while matching a season-short 3 2/3-inning effort, the Braves were unable to complete a series sweep of the Giants, who powered themselves out of Atlanta with a 9-3 victory.
"He just had one of those rare rough nights," Cox said of James, who actually had one of those odd nights, in which four of the five hits that he surrendered managed to land over the outfield wall. All of this damage came against a Giants lineup that didn't include Bonds, who chose to rest during this series finale. In doing so, he had the opportunity to watch four of his teammates do what he's done more often than anybody in Major League history. "It's a good thing he wasn't in the lineup," said James, who still managed to match a season high by surrendering six earned runs. "That definitely wouldn't have made my day any easier." About the only thing that made this day any easier for the Braves was the fact that former teammate Adam LaRoche sparked the three-run eighth inning that the Pirates used to claim their Thursday night win over the Mets, who consequently still hold just a 3 1/2-game lead over Cox's troops in the National League East race. If the Braves are going to make a serious push toward reclaiming the NL East title, they're going to need their starting rotation to consist of something more than just John Smoltz and Tim Hudson. While Buddy Carlyle has proven reliable, James' frustrating season has taken a turn for the worse at a bad time. "The ball just isn't coming out of my hand good," said James, who has posted an 8.27 ERA in his past four starts. "I just don't have the life on my fastball and everything is just flat. The only way it's not getting hit out of the park is if I paint it on the black." When Bengie Molina drilled his first-inning, three-run homer, it wasn't completely new territory for James, who has now allowed at least one home run in six straight starts. But to see Daniel Ortmeier, Randy Winn and Kevin Frandsen each drill solo shots in each of the next three innings put this 25-year-old southpaw in uncharted waters. But not too far away. James surrendered three homers in his April 21 start against the Mets and in his June 13 outing against the Twins. Entering Wednesday, he'd allowed 1.42 homers per nine innings -- the sixth-worst mark among all Major League pitchers who had completed at least 125 innings. James has never been able to find the consistency that he displayed during last year's 11-win rookie campaign and he believes this might be a product of fatigue. In his attempt to fix some mechanical problems at the beginning of the season, he threw more side sessions and consequently might have affected his arm strength. "I don't have the life on my fastball right now and unfortunately I'm not hitting spots either," James said. "That's a bad mix." After James spotted the Giants three runs, the Braves battled back with a two-run first inning against rookie phenom Tim Lincecum. But after issuing a walk and being charged with a wild pitch in the first inning, the 23-year-old right-hander found enough control to keep the Braves scoreless over the final four innings of his five-inning effort. "If we could have held them, I think we could have had a chance to score a few more," said Cox, who saw the Giants score one run on a sacrifice fly in the fifth, sixth and seventh innings. One encouraging development for the Braves came courtesy of the two-hit game provided by Andruw Jones, who along with two singles also hit two balls deep to center field. It looked like Jones was going to be the first Atlanta player to leave the yard when he drilled Brian Wilson's 0-2 delivery to deep center with two outs in the ninth inning. But Giants center fielder Rajai Davis went to the top of the wall and prevented Jones from mimicking the same home run trot he and his Braves teammates have seen far too often at James' expense. "I just had a couple pitches to hit and I didn't miss them," said Jones, who is hitting .215. "It's just too bad that we couldn't hold a lead to get a win. We just have to put it behind us."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.