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James can't find groove as Braves fall

James can't find groove as Braves fall

ATLANTA -- During his impressive rookie season two years ago, Chuck James fooled a number of hitters and anybody who was influenced to believe he was beginning what would be a splendid Major League career.

What had the makings of being a bright future may soon become a forgotten past.

There was some hope that James had regained both his health and mechanics while with Triple-A Richmond most of this season. But while surrendering a pair of homers and making an early exit in Friday night's 9-0 loss to the Brewers at Turner Field, James simply showed the Braves that not much has changed.

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"It all starts with pitching and we just didn't do it," said Braves manager Bobby Cox, whose team has surrendered 62 runs and posted an 8.26 ERA while losing six of their past seven games.

During the early portion of this seven-game stretch, the Braves conceded this season's legitimate postseason hopes and turned their attention toward a future that once certainly included James, who won 11 games last season.

But after allowing the Brewers six earned runs and issuing four walks in just 2 2/3 inning, the 26-year-old southpaw provided further reason to doubt whether he has a future at the Major League level.

"I just couldn't get settled down and find the strike zone," said James, who was making his sixth start of the season for the Braves and first since May 15, when he issued five walks, surrendered three homers and allowed five earned runs against the Phillies.

Although he'd found some recent success in the Minors with his slider, he wasn't able to surprise the Brewers with a third pitch. He claimed that he couldn't find a grip on the pitch and thus was restricted to that fastball-changeup mix that simply isn't working any more.

Displaying the inconsistent control that began plaguing him when his shoulder started bothering him during the middle of last season, James survived a two-run first inning that included Ryan Braun's RBI double and then was victimized in the second inning by Rickie Weeks' two-out RBI triple.

James began to fall apart during the third inning, which featured Prince Fielder's 414-foot solo homer down the right-field line and a two-run Mike Cameron homer. Following Cameron's blast, James ended his abbreviated return to the Majors with consecutive walks.

"Chuck had some of the best velocity that I've seen him have," Cox said, "but no location at all and he paid for it."

Over his past 33 Major League starts, James is 11-13 with a 5.21 ERA and issued 72 walks while surrendering 41 homers. Most of that damage has been realized over the course of his past 15 starts, during which he's gone 5-6 with a 7.29 ERA and issued 29 walks while allowing 24 homers.

While going 2-4 with a 9.47 ERA in six starts with the Braves this year, James has surrendered nine homers. This comes in a span of just 25 2/3 innings. In comparison, Jair Jurrjens has allowed just eight homers in 132 2/3 innings.

Entering Friday, James' 1.90 homers-per-nine-innings ratio ranked last among all Major League pitchers who had completed at least 170 innings since the start of the 2007 season.

This trend certainly wasn't foreseen during the early portion of James' career. During his first 21 career starts, he went 13-5 with a 3.71 ERA. In the process, he worked 123 2/3 innings, allowed 18 homers and issued 48 walks. That equated to at least a little more respectable 1.31 homers-per-nine-innings ratio.

"I don't think the home runs are necessarily the problem," James said. "It's just being wild, having to throw strikes and being behind the hitters."

James, whose only first-pitch strike in the third inning came with the fastball that Cameron hit the opposite way into the right-field seats, has battled control problems throughout most of his career. Things got worse midway through last season, when a fatigued shoulder caused him to alter his mechanics.

During a four-start stretch with Richmond from June 21-July 6, he worked 21 1/3 innings and issued 18 walks. But in his past three starts against International League competition, he worked 17 innings and issued five walks.

"My control has never been great," James said. "But it hasn't definitely been this bad."

In terms of health, James feels like he has regained the arm strength that he lacked while pitching a portion of last season with a slight tear in his rotator cuff. But he's currently feeling some fatigue that he blames on the fact that he's had to spend so much extra time attempting to regain his mechanics.

At the same time, he's providing the Braves reason to wonder if he'll ever regain his successful form.

"I don't think I was ever able to pitch down in the zone," James said. "But I could always throw to an area. Now it's just like I'm out there throwing it."

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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