TORONTO - It seems like no-hitters or perfect games are often punctuated by a defensive play that preserves the gem, like the leaping catch against the centre-field wall made by Dewayne Wise behind Mark Buehrle last July.
Brandon Morrow's moment came in the sixth-inning Sunday, when Vernon Wells chased down Ben Zobrist's drive to deep centre, leapt to snare the ball and then crashed into the wall, dislocating his right big toe to save his pitcher's no-hit bid in the process.
Unfortunately for the Toronto Blue Jays right-hander, the magic had run out by the time there were two outs in the ninth, and Evan Longoria poked a grounder toward the hole on the right side of the infield. Second baseman Aaron Hill charged the ball, dove to his left and had it glanced off his glove as the crowd of 22,313 gasped.
"Base hit," official scorer Dave Perkins bellowed in the press box, without a hint of hesitation.
And just like that, Morrow's attempt at the second no-hitter in franchise history and sixth in the majors this season vanished the way they all too often do, in jarring, agonizing fashion.
"That close," lamented manager Cito Gaston afterwards, holding his fingers an inch apart. "That close."
Still, the ever stoic Morrow shook off the disappointment as fans loudly applauded him, gathered himself during a meeting on the mound with Gaston, and proceeded to strike out Dan Johnson with his 137th pitch and seal a 1-0 victory against the Tampa Bay Rays.
Losing the no-no stung, but there was plenty of solace to be found in what was by far the best start of his young career.
"That was my first complete game, my first shutout, those things combined were more than enough to overcome the feeling of the missed no-hitter," said Morrow, who tipped his cap to the crowd on his way off the field before he was pied by Shaun Marcum and other teammates. "That would have been a great feat, but I'll start at a complete-game, one-hit shutout with 17 strikeouts."
If anyone can sympathize with Morrow it's Dave Stieb, owner of the only no-hitter in Blue Jays history (Sept 2, 1990 at Cleveland) and two bids lost with two down in the ninth. Had Longoria's ball been hit a foot more toward second base, it would have been different.
"Did everything I could, couldn't come up with it," said an unusually terse Hill. "Wish I could have gotten an error or something for it, unfortunately that's just the way it is. I was playing up the middle, pull hitter, it wasn't a pull swing, but he did his job."
The play put Perkins, a highly respected former Toronto Star columnist in only his third game on the job right on the hot seat. While Gaston said he heard while walking through the clubhouse "a group of pitchers say E4," the prevailing sense from both teams was that the right call was made.
"I won't lose any sleep over it — that's a base hit all the way," said Perkins.
Morrow agreed: "It's a hit, for sure."
To that point, Morrow's only blemishes had been walks to Johnson in the second and Zobrist with one out in the ninth. Longoria swatted at a 1-1 fastball to keep the Rays from being no-hit for the third time this season and fourth time since last July, when Buehrle was perfect against them.
"I saw him shake on the pitch that I got the base hit on so I just kind of guessed fastball away again," said Longoria. "With the walk and the runner on, that four-hole was open and it just gave me enough room to put that ball through."
When Longoria got to first base, he turned to Lyle Overbay and said Morrow deserved a better fate.
"If anybody deserved a no-hitter it was him today," said Longoria. "It was one of those guys where you go up the plate and you really feel like, and I hate to say it, but this guy is making his pitches all day, what chance do we have?
"When he got ahead in counts, he was putting guys away better than anybody I've ever seen."
Along with his first career shutout and complete game, Morrow (9-6) also set a career-high in strikeouts, breaking double digits for the first time and falling one shy of Roger Clemens' franchise record 18 set Aug. 25, 1998.
Wells, who will undergo further X-rays on his toe Monday and will miss at least a few days, drove in the game's only run with a single in the first off Andy Sonnanstine (2-1) as the Blue Jays (59-52) completed a three-game sweep of the Rays (67-44) on a memorable weekend of baseball.
They also improved to 6-6 against the AL wild card leaders this season in a series that will be remembered for top catching prospect J.P. Arencibia's two-homer debut in Saturday's 17-11 win, and Morrow's gem.
"The last two days we have had some excitement," marvelled Gaston.
With Morrow's fastball sitting 94-95 and a slider that made all-stars look like minor-league filler, there was a sense from the get-go that something special might happen Sunday. He struck out his first three batters and was ruthless the rest of the way.
"It was like, 'Oh, I guess we're just hang out and enjoy the game,'" said Overbay.
Even Morrow sensed it.
"Early, if you're feeling good, you might think hey, I've got a shot today the way my arm feels today, the way I'm locating, the way I'm throwing my off-speed pitches," he said. "I think the biggest thing for me today was fastball location and my slider was real good."
There were some nervous moments before the ninth.
One came in the sixth, when home-plate umpire Jason Kellogg awarded Jason Bartlett first base when he felt the ball struck him on the arm during a check-swing. Catcher Jose Molina argued immediately and eventually Kellogg huddled with the rest of crew and ruled it a foul ball.
Rays manager Joe Maddon came out for a lengthy argument, likely with some gamesmanship in mind to get Morrow off his rhythm. Instead, Bartlett struck out on the next pitch and Zobrist followed with the drive to deep centre that Wells chased down.
"Obviously you know the situation in the game and they always say there's one of those plays made when there's a no-hitter thrown," said Wells, who was replaced by Travis Snider. "In that situation you want to go as hard as you can. Your body is out of the equation in that situation, luckily I made it."
Morrow had more drama in the seventh when Johnson's two-out grounder took a funny bounce through Overbay at first base. Fans immediately booed but then cheered when "error, first base" was flashed on the scoreboard. Matt Joyce then struck out to end the inning.
After a clean eighth, Bartlett opened the ninth with a fly-out to centre, Zobrist walked on four pitches, Carl Crawford hit a soft liner to Snider in left before Longoria snuck the single by Hill. After Gaston's visit to the mound, Morrow made Johnson his 17th strikeout victim.
"Cito gave me that chance to calm myself and refocus and say, 'Hey, I still got a chance to throw a shutout and get a 1-0 win and a big division sweep,'" said Morrow. "(Hill) joked, he said he was sorry for missing the ball. He made a great dive, it just bounced away from him."
The most recent Blue Jays near miss was by Dustin McGowan, who gave up a leadoff single in the ninth to Jeff Baker in a one-hitter against Colorado on June 24, 2007.
Morrow, acquired last December from Seattle for Brandon League and a prospect, has made tremendous progress as a starter this season, particularly with Molina behind the plate. Coming in, he was 7-4 with a 3.32 earned-run average in 14 games with Molina catching, and 1-2 with an 8.81 ERA over seven games throwing to all-star.
Gaston has mused about the need to break up the pairing. That will be tough to do now.
Notes:OF Fred Lewis and Travis Snider were both the odd men out of Gaston's starting lineup Sunday. Snider's return has made for a crowded outfield and Gaston is having trouble keeping everyone happy. "It's real tough to do that," said Gaston. "It's hard to get (Jose) Bautista out of there and it's hard to get Vernon (Wells) out of there sometimes. But we'll work it some kind of way, we're doing the best we can with it." He says he hasn't had much conversation with his players about it. "I've told them they're going to get days off here and there," he said. "That's enough." ... Gaston said he wasn't tempted to use rookie J.P. Arencibia behind the plate after his spectacular debut Saturday. "If (John) Buck had hit two home runs yesterday, Molina would still be catching," he said. ... GM Alex Anthopoulos said Buck (right thumb) should be ready as soon as his DL stint is over. "We're expecting him to be ready before the two weeks are up," he said. "It's great that J.P.'s come up, he had a nice first game ... but at the same time, John Buck is an all-star and he's a big part of the reason some of the starters are performing the way they are." ... Anthopoulos added talks continue with first-round pick Deck McGuire and that a general offer has been extended to him. "A lot of first-round picks seem to be signing later and later every single year," he said. "We've also agreed to see how some of the other signings would come in. There's not a lot of substantial dialogue just because there's not that many signings."