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6/25/2014 5:51 P.M. ET

Morton's superb effort not enough for sweep

Starter strikes out career-high 11, but Bucs shut down by Price

ST. PETERSBURG -- When the ball left Neil Walker's bat, David Price thought it was gone.

With two men on base, the Pirates came a few feet from a tie game on Walker's long drive in the seventh inning of their 5-1 loss to the Rays on Wednesday at Tropicana Field. But Desmond Jennings robbed the Pittsburgh second baseman of at least extra bases with a running over-the-shoulder catch at the center-field wall. 

"That would have been tough," Price said.

And though Andrew McCutchen eventually did take Price deep in the ninth, Pittsburgh needed much more than that.

"It's always fun to watch pitchers command the baseball, and when it's against you, obviously the challenge becomes greater on the offensive side," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "I'm sure it's been said before, but Price was right today."

Despite a stellar effort by starter Charlie Morton, the Pirates were stymied by Price in the series finale. A day after clinching the series victory and going over .500 for the first time since mid-April, Pittsburgh fell back to 39-39, while the Rays improved to 32-48.

Morton struck out a career-high 11 batters and held the Rays to three runs (two earned) on four hits in seven innings. He really made only one bad pitch, a belt-high sinker down the middle to Ben Zobrist that was driven into the right-center-field gap for an RBI triple to start the scoring in the first inning.

"A lefty, I'm trying to elevate it," Morton said. "I'm trying to get it up on his hands. I'm trying to run the ball back in on the inside part of the plate. If you watch that pitch, it was elevated, but it was out over the plate. And that's just a bad spot."

The Rays scored twice more in the first. Evan Longoria hit a fielder's choice that shortstop Jordy Mercer misplayed for an error, and Kevin Kiermaier hit a sacrifice fly.

Hurdle said Morton sometimes seems to come out too amped up early in games, and as a result, he leaves his fastball up in the zone. But Morton said that by itself isn't the problem.

"I think it's good to be quote-unquote 'amped up,'" Morton said. "It's just, the energy needs to be focused. I feel like in key situations early in that first inning, I just wasn't making my pitches. The pitches I needed to make, I just didn't make them."

Morton didn't allow a run after the first inning, but the Pirates' lineup was kept off-balance by Price until the ninth inning, when McCutchen connected with a changeup for his 12th home run of the season. After the homer, Price was removed to an ovation from the crowd of 23,761.

"Cutch got a changeup, which he'd seen a number of throughout the day, and he hit it out of the park," Hurdle said. "But [Price's] 107th pitch of the day was 97 mph. He was on his game today."

The Pirates struck out 11 times against the left-hander in 8 1/3 innings. Price, who leads the Major Leagues in strikeouts with 144, recorded his fifth consecutive double-digit strikeout game, a streak no pitcher had accomplished since Johan Santana in 2004. Price set the team record for strikeouts in a month with 54, surpassing Scott Kazmir's mark of 50 set in August 2007.

"I've never been as good as I am right now, period," Price said. "Not in 2012 [when Price won the American League Cy Young Award], not in college, not in high school. This is the best pitcher I've ever been. I feel in complete control on the mound at all times, with all my pitches on both sides of the plate, and that's tough to do."

Outside of McCutchen's home run and Walker's long fly ball in the seventh, the Pirates couldn't muster much against Price, recording just five hits. And once Morton came out of the game, the Rays tacked on two more runs, with reliever Jason Grilli giving up RBI singles to James Loney and Kiermaier in the eighth inning.

"Charlie battled back," Hurdle said. "After the first inning, he just repeated his delivery, found his stroke. He had 11 punchouts, seven ground balls, was very efficient and mixed his pitches well. Unfortunately, at that time, we were three runs down."

David Adler is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.