James, Senators no-hit Curve
"The chances of me of coming back weren't very good," James said. "I'm very thankful to be playing again."
On the road back from extensive shoulder surgery, James combined with two relievers to throw the second no-hitter in Harrisburg history on Thursday night as the Double-A Senators blanked Altoona, 1-0, to split a doubleheader.
A satisfying achievement for a pitcher looking for a second chance.
"Today was just one of those days," he said. "Everything came together."
James, 28, struck out seven over five innings, including six consecutive strikeouts in the third and fourth frames. Cole Kimball and Zech Zinicola each fanned two in an inning of work apiece to seal the no-hitter.
James fanned Hector Gimenez to end the fifth and finish his night, his only flaw coming in the first inning when he walked former fourth-round pick Chase d'Arnaud to lead off the game.
"I felt good, today was the first day I've gotten a chance to stretch out a bit and everything came together for me," said James, who said he threw about 70 pitches. "It's one of those days, when you're a part of a no-hitter, the stars align just right. I came out, felt pretty good and they slammed the door."
James spent parts of three seasons in the Majors with Atlanta, where he last pitched in 2008, going 2-5 in seven starts with a 9.10 ERA while battling shoulder pain. His shoulder troubles eventually led to surgery in August 2008, and he was released by the Braves that winter.
The Atlanta native spent all of '09 recovering until the Nationals offered the former 2002 20th-round pick a Minor League contract on Jan. 25, 2010. He received an invitation to Spring Training and has been trying to work his way back to the bigs ever since, splitting the season thus far between Triple-A Syracuse and Harrisburg.
"[Today] felt good, it's kinda been hit or miss this year," he said. "Every outing you kinda work on something else. You're just trying to get back to where you were and where I need to be to feel good."
Kimball came on to begin the six and surrendered the hardest hit ball of the night, a warning-track fly ball by Alex Presley to center fielder Brad Coon. He whiffed Miles Durham and Jim Negrych swinging before passing the ball on to Zinicola, who struck out d'Arnaud and Gorkys Hernandez before inducing a game-ending grounder to first from Josh Harrison.
"It was pretty cool," James laughed. "Everyone was real excited, we'd been on a losng streak, so to run off with a win was pretty great. And the no-hitter was the cherry on top."
It was the first no-hitter for Harrisburg since Seung Song tossed one on April 28, 2003, and the first combined no-no in the Eastern League since Dave Crouthers, Andy Mitchell and Jacobo Sequea shared the effort for Bowie on Aug. 19, 2004.
James is on a strict innings limit this season in his journey back, and the Nationals felt they could better monitor his progress at Harrisburg rather than up north in Syracuse. He's dominated in his brief time at Double-A, throwing 14 2/3 scoreless innings over five outings. Thursday marked his first start for the Senators, although he went 2-1 with a 3.92 ERA in five starts at Triple-A earlier this year.
Missing all of 2009 was a harsh reality to accept for the lefty, who spent all of 2007 in the Braves' rotation.
"It was tough," said James, who had his torn rotator cuff and labrum repaired two years ago, ending months of pain and rocky outings. "It was kind of, I would say, a relief they did find something wrong after all the pain I went through and I wasn't showing anything.
"And then after the surgery, everything was fine. They released me, which was cool, I knew it was gonna be a long road back," James said. "It didn't hit me until the  season started and I saw the guys playing on TV."
James is now far removed from the couch. He gave up one hit over five innings in his 2010 debut April 23 with Syracuse and allowed just one hit over four innings in his previous outing June 3 at Richmond, where he previously pitched for Atlanta.
"My goal is to stay healthy and try to get back to where I'm not having to think about mechanics, where everything just falls back into place," he said. "I want to end this year healthy."
James struck out 19 over 20 1/3 innings with the Chiefs before being reassigned to Double-A following his May 16 outing.
Kimball, a 2006 12th-rounder, has been equally dominant this season at two levels. The Brooklyn, N.Y. native has not allowed a run in 7 2/3 innings for Harrisburg since being promoted from Class A Advanced Potomac, where he was 3-0 with a 1.82 ERA in 19 outings.
Zinicola, a sixth-round pick in '06, lowered his ERA to 0.68 in sealing the no-hitter. He's allowed one run in 13 1/3 frames for Harrisburg after appearing in 11 games with Syracuse.
"It was more exciting to watch them than me being out there," James said. "It's more exciting watching those guys get fired up and coming in."
James, though, has plenty to feel excited about himself.
Danny Wild is an editor for MLB.com.