ST. PETERSBURG — Before Monday night’s game, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon marveled at the depth of Pittsburgh’s batting order, pointing out that the Pirates had slugger Pedro Alvarez batting seventh.
Maddon’s fears were realized when Alvarez came up with two runners aboard in the top of the third, with the Pirates already ahead 3-1. Alex Cobb’s first pitch to Alvarez was a fat fastball that was launched well over the 404-foot sign in straightaway center field.
Alvarez’s 12th home run was a mammoth shot that ended the suspense for the evening in Pittsburgh’s 8-1 victory and effectively dropped the offensively challenged Rays to 31-47 on a night Tampa Bay had an opportunity to escape the stigma of owning the worst record in the majors.
“I can trace the bad outing back to that pitch he (Alvarez) hit out,’’ Cobb said. “It was supposed to be a little bit more in. I threw him a few change-ups in his at-bat before, so I thought I might have had the inner half opened up a little bit, but it’s tough to sneak a fastball down the middle.’’
The Pirates showed an announced Tropicana Field crowd of 13,175 why they own the best record in the National League (26-18) since May 6, stealing four bases while playing stellar defense in support of a solid start by Edinson Volquez.
“They’re very athletic,” Maddon said of the Pirates. “And they played a wonderful game tonight. Their speed on the bases bothered us. Alex was fighting himself. He was definitely just off a little bit. Three walks and two punchouts — that’s not typical of him.’’
Cobb, who had allowed only one earned run in his previous two starts, wasn’t sharp during his five-inning stint, yielding six hits while throwing 91 pitches. A year removed from an 11-3 season, Cobb fell to 2-6 in a year marked by injury and inconsistency.
Pittsburgh scored twice in the first inning as Cobb struggled with both his command and his glove.
Starling Marte was hit by a pitch, stole second and eventually scored on a forceout. Russell Martin’s two-out grounder ricocheted off Cobb’s right leg and Cobb overthrew first base on the play as Andrew McCutchen came across for a 2-0 lead.
The Rays got a run back in the bottom of the first when Desmond Jennings led off with an infield hit and scored on James Loney’s two-out single.
That was the extent of Tampa Bay’s scoring against Volquez, who was shelled by Cincinnati for eight runs in 2 1⁄3 innings during his previous start.
Marte triggered the third-inning outburst against Cobb by lashing a hit to right-center and hustling into second base for a double. McCutchen followed with an RBI single before posting his second steal of the night and moving to third on a flyout.
Martin struck out, but a walk to Josh Harrison brought Alvarez to the plate for his game-breaking blast. Alvarez strikes out frequently and doesn’t hit much for average, but his 78 home runs since the start of the 2012 season rank second to Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton.
A win Monday would have moved the Rays ahead of idle Arizona. Instead, Tampa Bay has occupied the major-league basement for 20 consecutive days as the Rays approach the end of a stretch of 18 home games within a 21-game span.
The Rays are now 12 games behind first-place Toronto in the American League East, the same startling gap Tampa Bay trailed by before the schedule turned favorable June 4.
Cesar Ramos and Kirby Yates finished up in relief of Cobb and the Pirates added an eighth-inning run on Travis Snider’s RBI single. McCutchen’s third hit of the night brought home the final run in the ninth.
Volquez had been 6-7 with a 4.89 ERA in 18 career interleague starts. The right-hander mixed his pitches effectively while staying ahead of most Tampa Bay batters, holding the Rays to five hits before yielding to Jeanmar Gomez after eight innings and 110 pitches.