ST. PETERSBURG — For the Rays, it was a wasted opportunity and another confounding example of the team’s growing homefield disadvantage.
They were facing the Tigers, owners of baseball’s worst record and having won just eight times since the All-Star break.
Right-hander Charlie Morton, the Rays’ best pitcher, performed brilliantly (again).
Friday night’s final at Tropicana Field: Tigers 2, Rays 0.
Afterward, Morton was kicking himself over a fourth-inning cross-up with Travis d’Arnaud — the catcher called for a curveball, but Morton threw a fastball — that produced a passed ball and allowed the go-ahead run to score.
“Charlie pitched great,’’ d’Arnaud said. “He deserved better, obviously.’’
Morton (13-5) allowed just three hits over seven innings, striking out 10 and walking none, giving him 29 strikeouts and zero walks in his past three starts. It was Morton’s first career defeat when not allowing an earned run.
For that ignominious turn of events, everyone agreed, you can blame the Rays offense.
The Rays woke up late, getting runners to first and third with two outs in the ninth inning. But Eric Sogard, after working a full count against Tigers reliever Joe Jimenez, was called out on strikes to end the game.
“You’ve got to score to win,’’ said Rays manager Kevin Cash after his club managed just five hits against three pitchers, starter Daniel Norris and relievers Drew VerHagen and Jimenez. “We didn’t do that.’’
Although maintaining their hold on the American League’s second wild-card spot, the Rays (71-52) sunk to 31-29 at home, versus their MLB-leading 40-23 mark on the road. They also have lost 10 of their past 17 at the Trop.
It was just one game in a long season, witnessed by an announced crowd of 13,717, but it was an especially rough start to a six-game homestand against two last-place clubs.
The Rays have scored three runs or fewer, including three shutouts, in 10 of Morton’s 26 starts this season. Against the Tigers, they had just three runners in scoring position.
Morton wasn’t moaning about lack of support, though. The 35-year-old blamed himself for allowing the unearned run that ultimately gave the Tigers a winning margin.
“That can’t happen,’’ Morton said. “I threw (d’Arnaud) a pitch he didn’t call for. It not only cost us a run, but it put him at risk health-wise.’’
With the Tigers getting runners to second and third — and an enhanced ability to pick up the catcher’s signals — Morton said the signs were altered as always. He said he failed to make the proper adjustment and didn’t properly read d’Arnaud’s sign for a curveball.
D’Arnaud shifted to the outside corner on the pitch, then tried to make a stop as the fastball was rifled down the middle. It hit d’Arnaud’s wrist but caromed to the backstop, allowing Dawel Lugo to score from third.
“I’ve still got to keep that ball in front,’’ d’Arnaud said. “I did what I could. It just didn’t work out. It’s my job to keep the ball in front and keep that runner from scoring.’’
With the schedule difficulty picking up considerably in September, most feel it’s the Rays’ job to take advantage of every opportunity in August.
On Friday, they went flat against the Tigers (37-82).
“The way we’re built, (emphasizing) preventing runs, we’re going to be in a lot of tight ball games,’’ said Cash, whose team is amid a string of 21 straight games against teams with losing records. “To win games at the major-league level, you’ve got to have a lot of things go your way.’’
Most things went wrong for the Rays.
In the fourth, after third baseman Matt Duffy committed a one-out error, Morton struck out Miguel Cabrera. When Niko Goodrum followed with a double to the rightfield corner, third-base coach Dave Clark played it conservatively and held Lugo at third.
Morton’s 2-0 offering to Brandon Dixon was the cross-up. D’Arnaud shifted to the outside corner, but the pitch came inside and got to the backstop, allowing Lugo to score.
The Tigers got another run in the eighth off right-handed reliever Pete Fairbanks, who was just called up from Triple-A Durham, but they didn’t need that insurance.
Not against the punchless Rays.
There were second-inning strikeouts by Kevin Kiermaier and Guillermo Heredia with runners on first and second. There were inning-killing double plays in the fourth and sixth. Kiermaier struck out in the seventh after Sogard smacked a two-out double.
Things finally crackled in the ninth inning after pinch-hitter Ji-Man Choi walked and Duffy singled. But Jimenez’s fastball to Sogard, high in the zone, was called strike three by home-plate umpire Bruce Dreckman.
The final wasted opportunity.