ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- No matter how many strikes Charlie Morton threw, no matter how many times he forced Tampa Bay Rays batters to chase his curveball, he couldn't erase the runs allowed in the first inning.
Against David Price, that's the only thing that would have helped.
The Rays left-hander pitched 81/3 excellent innings in a 5-1 Pirates loss Wednesday at Tropicana Field, helping the Tampa Bay avoid a series sweep. The loss snapped a four-game win streak for the Pirates.
"I felt good on the mound and we were able to put up some runs in the first inning," Price said. "That always makes things easier."
Price (6-7) and Morton (4-9) squaring off made for great theater. They each struck out 11, which for Morton set a career high, and walked one. Morton locked down things after a tough first inning, but Price was untouchable until the very end.
The Pirates mounted one scoring chance against Price through the first eight innings and a running catch on the warning track by Desmond Jennings ended the threat.
"It's always fun to watch pitchers command the baseball," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
Price entered the game with the most strikeouts in the majors. He had struck out 10 or more batters in each of his previous four starts, three of which lasted eight innings. He became the first pitcher to strike out double-digit batters in five consecutive starts since Johan Santana in 2004.
Josh Harrison, the second batter of the game, singled and stole second. Price walked Russell Martin in the second and allowed a two-out single to Neil Walker in the fifth, but that was it until the seventh, when Martin reached base on a fielder's choice after Gaby Sanchez singled with one out. Jordy Mercer followed with a single. Walker drove a long fly ball to the warning track that Jennings ran down with a leaping catch, keeping the Pirates scoreless.
Not until after Andrew McCutchen homered with one out in the ninth did Rays manager Joe Maddon remove Price.
Despite dropping the series finale, the Pirates finished their road trip 4-2 and have won their past five road series after losing the previous seven.
"We're just playing better baseball and finding a better rhythm for our game," Hurdle said.
Morton allowed three runs, two earned, in seven innings. Only two batters reached base in his final six innings, and he retired the final 10 batters he faced, with the help of several swings through his curveball.
"The curveball has been a really good pitch for me, and last year, too," Morton said. "It's been a big factor in the success I've had."
Morton noted that the curveball had become more "linear," moving less from right to left, which allowed him to control it better and not hit as many batters with errant ones.
"It's still set up by fastball command because he's firm with his fastball even when he's sinking it," Hurdle said. "It can get up to 94 [mph]. It's not like they can just abort the fastball because then he can beat him up top every once in a while."
Morton's first-inning woes began when Jennings led off with a single, then broke for second on Morton's pitch to Ben Zobrist.
Zobrist lined a ball to the gap in right-center field that ticked off McCutchen's glove as he was sliding to make a catch, resulting in for an RBI triple.
"I feel like in key situations early in that first tinning I wasn't making my pitches," Morton said. "The pitches I needed to make, I just didn't make them."
After Matt Joyce struck out. Evan Longoria grounded to short, scoring a run, but Mercer bobbled the ball. James Loney singled off Morton's leg and Morton hit Brandon Guyer with a pitch, loading the bases.
Kevin Kiermaier's sacrifice fly scored the third run and Morton needed 29 pitches to escape the inning after eight batters.
Jason Grilli relieved Morton in the eighth and allowed two runs on four hits before Justin Wilson relieved him.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @BrinkPG.
Bill Brink: email@example.com and Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published June 25, 2014 3:07 PM