TORONTO -- It was clear right from the beginning on Sunday afternoon that Blue Jays pitcher Brandon Morrow might be on the verge of something special against the Rays.
Ben Zobrist. Carl Crawford. Evan Longoria. Each struck out swinging on an array of filthy pitches in the first inning, heading back to the dugout looking overmatched and downright baffled. As Morrow's teammates watched that early display of dominance, it was hard for them not to get excited.
"When he struck out those three guys," Blue Jays first baseman Lyle Overbay said, "it was like, 'Well, I guess we're just going to hang out and enjoy the game.'"
Morrow did not disappoint.
Over nine brilliant innings, Morrow was in complete control against the Rays, guiding the Blue Jays to a 1-0 victory and coming within one out of completing the second no-hitter in franchise history. That feat slipped out of Morrow's grasp, but that hardly took away from the pitcher's masterpiece, which helped Toronto to a three-game sweep of its American League East rivals.
"That close from pitching a no-hitter," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said. "I expect that out of him, because he has that kind of stuff."
In a one-hit gem, Morrow used a devastating slider and a hard fastball to pile up 17 strikeouts against the Rays, who have been the victim of three no-hitters in the past two seasons. The 17 strikeouts are the most by a pitcher this season and the second-highest mark in a single game in team history. It was also the 13th complete-game shutout with no more than one hit allowed this season, which is the most since there were 14 such games in 1993.
"I was excited," Morrow said. "That's my first complete game, first shutout. Those things combined are more than enough to overcome the missed no-hitter. That would've been a great feat, but I'll start at a complete game, one-hit shutout with 17 strikeouts."
Jays' near no-no's
Of the past 16 pitchers to lose a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth inning, five have been Blue Jays hurlers.
* Perfect game bid
Morrow's chance to have his name etched in baseball's record book was lost with two outs in the ninth inning. After issuing a walk to Zobrist, Morrow sent a 1-1 fastball to the outside corner against Longoria. Tampa Bay's third baseman swung and sent the pitch bouncing through the right side of the infield.
Blue Jays second baseman Aaron Hill hustled to his left, diving and reaching as far as he could in an effort to corral the sharply hit grounder. The baseball skipped off the end of Hill's glove and rolled into right field. Official scorer Dave Perkins immediately ruled it a single for Longoria.
"It is what it is. It's a base hit," Perkins said. "Anybody that doubts it, turn it around. If a Toronto guy was facing a no-hitter and did that with two outs in the ninth, would they still say it's an error? I have no problem standing by it."
"That's a hit, for sure," Morrow said.
After a brief mound visit, Gaston allowed Morrow to remain in the game. The pitcher then struck out Dan Johnson to seal the victory in 137 pitches -- the most he has thrown in a game in his career.
From Overbay's view at first base, the play would have likely resulted in a hit even if Hill managed to somehow catch the ball.
"Even if he got it, I think Longoria was safe," Overbay said. "It was in a perfect spot. We had him [shaded] up the middle and he just hit it into that target hole."
That did not make it any easier for Hill to accept what happened.
After the game, an upset Hill remained in a back room for a long period of time and the second baseman indicated that he preferred not to discuss the play with reporters. Finally, Hill arrived in the clubhouse and offered his take on the tough play.
"I did everything I could and couldn't come up with it," Hill said. "I wish I could get an error or something for it. Unfortunately, that's just the way it is. I'm playing up the middle -- pull-hitter. It wasn't a pull-swing, but he did his job."
Morrow became the seventh Jays pitcher to lose a no-hitter in the ninth inning and the third to do so with two outs in the final frame. Dave Stieb -- owner of Toronto's lone no-hitter on Sept. 4, 1990, against Cleveland -- lost no-hitters with two outs in the ninth in back-to-back starts in '88 and had a perfect game bid ended in '89. Roy Halladay lost a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth against the Tigers in '98 in his second career start.
"If anyone deserved a no-hitter it was him today," said Longoria of Morrow. "I mean, it really was one of those days you go up to the plate and really feel like, and I hate to say it, 'This guy has been making his pitches all day. What chance do we have right now?'"
The Blue Jays (59-52) provided Morrow with the lone run of support he required in the first inning. Shortstop Yunel Escobar drew a one-out walk against Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine and later advanced to third base on a groundout by Jose Bausita. A bloop single to right field from Vernon Wells plated Escobar, giving Toronto a 1-0 lead.
The Rays (67-44) knew they were in trouble.
"Anytime we got into a hitter's count, he made a perfect pitch," Longoria said. "And when he got ahead in counts, he was putting guys away better than anyone I've ever seen."
From their perch behind the left-field wall, the Blue Jays relievers were having a blast watching Morrow go to work.
"We never mentioned the word 'no-hitter,'" Jays reliever Jason Frasor said with a smile. "But we were having fun. It felt like we were about to clinch the division or something down there. It was a lot of fun to watch."
Morrow (9-6), who carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning in his first career start in 2008 against the Yankees, struck out at least two batters in six of the nine innings he pitched. The right-hander finished with two walks and fell just one strikeout shy of matching Roger Clemens' club record of 18 strikeouts in one game.
In the sixth inning, Rays manager Joe Maddon tried to toy with Morrow's rhythm.
After Morrow struck out Reid Brignac to open the frame, home-plate umpire Jeff Kellogg ruled that the Jays' starter hit Jason Bartlett with a pitch. After Jays catcher Jose Molina and Gaston argued that the ball struck Bartlett's bat, Kellogg met with the other umpires and overturned his initial ruling.
Maddon emerged from the visitors' dugout and disputed the call for a few minutes.
"I thought the longer I stayed out there he might make a mistake," Maddon said.
Instead, Morrow answered by striking Bartlett out. The next hitter, Zobrist, sent a pitch slicing high and deep into the left-center-field gap. Wells raced through the outfield and made a spectacular running catch, crashing into the wall and falling to the turf as the Rogers Centre crowd roared.
Wells sacrificed his body to make the catch -- he left with a right foot injury and will undergo an X-ray on Monday -- in an effort to protect Morrow's bid for a no-hitter.
Morrow did not complete the rare feat, but his performance was stellar nonetheless.
"Being a young guy with that kind of arm," Molina said, "and taking it to the level he did today, I know he will learn from it. Hopefully soon he will show he can finish it up."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.