ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays were on the losing end of two separate replay challenges on pivotal plays in the third inning, and manager Joe Maddon left the game still wondering why.
The first came when Jonathan Villar was called out trying to steal third. Houston manager Bo Porter challenged the call, which was overturned after a 1:14 review. Maddon said he thought 3B Evan Longoria tagged Villar.
The other play could have been more costly.
Speedy CF Desmond Jennings noticed in previous at-bats that LHP Dallas Keuchel wasn't paying attention to the bag between pitches. So Jennings took off from third and slid into home, trying to duck under Carlos Corporan's tag, but was called out.
Maddon and Jennings both thought he was safe, so Maddon challenged the call, which was confirmed after a 2:15 review.
Even though Longoria was batting and the Rays had two outs, Maddon said he agreed with Jennings' thought process. The count was 2-and-0 and Longoria wasn't likely to get a good pitch to hit.
"I didn't like it," Maddon said of Jennings' decision. "I loved it."
CLOSING TIME: RHP Grant Balfour allowed only one baserunner in the seventh and struck out two to continue his dominant stretch under the Rays' closer-by-committee approach. He has allowed only four baserunners and struck out seven batters in five appearances since losing the closer title.
Maddon picked LHP Jake McGee for the eighth inning so he could pitch to the heart of Houston's order. That left RHP Joel Peralta for the ninth. His perfect two-strikeout inning resulted in his first save of the season and his first since May 17, 2013, against Baltimore.
MEDICAL MATTERS: RHP Jeremy Hellickson (elbow) gave up six runs (five earned) in five innings in a rehab start at Triple-A Durham. His 81-pitch outing included one home run allowed, eight hits and seven strikeouts.
Hellickson might require one more rehab start before rejoining the Rays. Maddon said he hasn't yet talked with executive vice president Andrew Friedman about what the team might do to the starting rotation when Hellickson is healthy enough to return.
"There's no rush yet, as far as I'm concerned," Maddon said.
BIG TEST FOR COBB: RHP Alex Cobb's performance has improved dramatically since he noticed some mechanical flaws that were caused by him speeding through his delivery.
In his previous four games before spotting the flaw, he gave up 16 runs and 27 hits. In two outings since, he has given up only one earned run and seven hits heading into today's start against Pittsburgh.
"I think (today) should be a good sample for me to see where I'm at in that process," Cobb said.
ON ODORIZZI: RHP Jake Odorizzi's 10-strikeout, one-hit performance in 71/3 innings Saturday gave him an average of 10.55 strikeouts per nine innings. No AL rookie has ever hit that mark over a full season, and only three NL rookies have done so: Tampa native Dwight Gooden, Kerry Wood and Hideo Nomo.
MISCELLANY: RHP prospect Alex Colome had his worst start of the year Saturday for Triple-A Durham: nine runs on eight hits in only 11/3 innings. He had a 3-0 record and a 0.68 ERA entering the game. … SS Yunel Escobar has eight RBIs in his past eight games. He had only one in his previous 17. … The Rays have struck out at least 10 batters in their past three games and in six of their seven contests against Houston.
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What's new: After starting the season 10-28, the Pirates have won 27 of their past 37 games. Reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, batting .351, leads the league with 52 walks and ranks among the leaders in doubles (22) and slugging (.523). OF Gregory Polanco had his career-opening 11-game hitting streak snapped but is still batting .345. Starling Marte's 17 stolen bases are fifth in the league. Pittsburgh ranks near the bottom in the NL in ERA and walks, and only the Rockies have fewer strikeouts.
Key stat: From May 1 through Saturday, the Pirates led the majors in hits (470), on-base percentage (.350) and average (.278). They're the only team in the NL that has had five players put together hitting streaks of at least 10 games.
Connections: Rays third-base coach Tom Foley and first-base coach George Hendrick are former Pirates. Pittsburgh pitching coach Ray Searage used to coach in Tampa Bay's farm system.
Series history: Pirates lead 5-4 overall and 2-1 at Tropicana Field. The teams haven't met at the Trop since June 2003.
Matt Baker, Times staff writer