ST. PETERSBURG -- As soon as the ball left Pedro Alvarez's bat, Rays starter Alex Cobb bent over, hands on his knees, and turned to watch it go.
"Hittable pitch," Alvarez said.
The slugging Pirates third baseman blasted a two-out, three-run homer to dead center field in the third inning on Monday, breaking open the Pirates' 8-1 win at Tropicana Field in the first of a three-game set.
There was no such moment for Edinson Volquez, who, backed by his defense, kept the Rays in check all night long, holding them to one run over eight innings of work, despite striking out just one batter. Volquez was coming off a 2 1/3-inning, eight-run shelling in his last start, but the Rays managed just a lone first-inning run against him.
"I was too fresh -- from last time. I only pitched two innings," Volquez joked.
The Pirates got back to .500, at 38-38, for the first time since June 14. They haven't been over .500 since two months before that, on April 14. The Rays, who had a chance to get out of the MLB basement with a win, kept the worst record in baseball at 31-47, a spot they've held for 20 straight days.
Pittsburgh took advantage of Cobb's shaky command -- Cobb threw just seven more strikes than balls in the game -- touching up the right-hander for six of the eight runs. Alvarez's long home run came on a fastball that tailed back over the heart of the plate.
"I can trace the bad outing back to that pitch that he hit out," Cobb said. "I'd thrown a few changeups the at-bat before, so I thought I might've had the inner half opened up a little bit -- but it's tough to sneak a fastball down the middle."
Cobb and the Rays couldn't contain the Pirates on the basepaths, either, as Pittsburgh stole a season-high four bases, easily.
"We do our homework for every starter, and when we think there might be an opportunity to take advantage of something, we try to do it," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
After three of the four steals, the basestealer scored -- Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen in the first inning, and McCutchen again in the third.
"They do have some speed at the top of the batting order, and it really impacted the game, because I think it kind of took Cobber out of his normal rhythms, patterns," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Beyond all that, the home run is really the thing that turned the game in their favor."
Pittsburgh also erased Rays baserunners on the other end. Second baseman Josh Harrison made an impressive over-the-shoulder catch in shallow center field on an eighth-inning broken-bat flare by Desmond Jennings, and the Pirates turned three double plays behind Volquez.
The Pirates took a 2-0 lead in the first inning on an Ike Davis groundout and a Russell Martin infield single, which hit Cobb in the leg and went straight up. Cobb grabbed the ball out of the air and rushed an off-balance throw toward first, airmailing it down the right-field line.
After the Rays answered with their only run in the bottom of the first, the Pirates added four more in the third on a McCutchen single -- which gave him the franchise lead in RBIs in Interleague games with 52 -- and Alvarez's homer.
"A lot of the times, people have been taking their chances with Pedro, and he's an important part of our offense," Hurdle said. "We need him to fire. We need him to drive in runs, and that was very good to see from him tonight. Three-run homers always play well."
Travis Snider tacked on one more run for the Pirates in the top of the eighth with a bloop single off reliever Kirby Yates, pushing the margin to 7-1. McCutchen's second RBI single in the ninth tallied one more for the Bucs and pushed his Interleague RBI total to 53.
Jeanmar Gomez then came in to close things out for the Pirates, ending Volquez's night after 110 pitches. Volquez said he had been thinking about a complete game in the middle innings, when he had a more reasonable pitch count, but let go of the idea as the game went on.
He at least managed to talk his way out there for the eighth, though, by telling his coaches what he told reporters about that last short start.
"They asked me in the eighth if I wanted to go back, and I said, 'Yeah, I'm ready to go. I'm really fresh. I only threw 64 pitches last time,'" Volquez said.
David Adler is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.