CLEVELAND -- There is a lot of grass between the Indians' bullpen and the mound at Progressive Field. It is plenty of ground to cover and provides plenty of time to think for a pitcher entering a ballgame.
"You wouldn't believe some of the thoughts I have out there," Indians closer Chris Perez admitted with a laugh.
Perez certainly spends time thinking about the hitters he is about to encounter and, when on the mound, he is usually thinking a pitch or two ahead. There are, however, other things that run through the closer's mind, too. The score of Detroit's game against the Royals, for example.
When the center-field gate for the bullpen swung open in the ninth inning on Monday night, and Perez ran in to close out the Indians' 2-1 victory over the A's, the closer was well aware that the Tigers were on their way to a loss. Knowledge is power for a Cleveland club that considers itself still very much alive in the American League Central chase.
"We're all aware of what Detroit's doing," Perez said. "The last time we checked it was 9-4."
Detroit went on to lose to Kansas City by a count of 9-5. With their win, the third-place Tribe pulled within 5 1/2 games of the division-leading Tigers. The White Sox, who have refused to go away in this three-way fight to the finish, remain a half-game above the Indians in the AL Central standings.
The path to the win column for Cleveland was paved by a familiar 2011 formula. The Tribe received a solid outing from its starting pitcher, the offense pieced together just enough offense and the bullpen slammed the door. Leading the charge was lefty David Huff, who worked six shutout innings en route to the win.
It was a strong bounce-back effort from Huff (2-2) after the southpaw labored to locate the strike zone in a 2 1/3-inning disaster (five runs and four walks) against the Tigers on Aug. 20. Nine days later, Huff breezed through Oakland's order, scattering three hits and striking out four in an admirable 99-pitch effort.
Huff said the key was overcoming some early-inning jitters.
"Coming off of nine days' rest, I was a little up in the zone at the start," Huff said. "But eventually, I settled down and made pitches and got ahead in the later innings -- four, five and six."
The Indians (66-65) were not able to mount much of an offensive attack against A's right-hander Brandon McCarthy, but it did not take much in the way of run support to thwart his complete-game performance. Over eight innings, McCarthy (7-7) allowed two runs on five hits and ended with 10 strikeouts for Oakland (60-74).
"We couldn't do much against McCarthy," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "He was very, very good with that cutter and the sinker coming from the same slot. He worked both sides of the plate and was very effective. He had us going back and forth, chasing his pitches. But we got some clutch hitting."
In the sixth inning, rookie Ezequiel Carrera sliced a pitch from McCarthy to deep left-center for a critical two-out single. Kosuke Fukudome followed by pulling an offering down the right-field line for a two-base hit of his own. Carrera hustled around the bases, made a slick head-first slide to avoid a tag at the plate and put the Tribe up, 1-0.
"Great slide by Ezequiel," Acta said.
Carlos Santana delivered an important insurance run in the seventh, when he crushed a 2-1 pitch from McCarthy into the stands beyond the wall in right-center for his 20th home run of the season. The solo blast upped Cleveland's advantage to 2-0, which proved to be an integral cushion in the end.
Sidearmer Joe Smith, who entered in the seventh following Huff's outing, took the mound to open the eighth and promptly surrendered a leadoff double to Scott Sizemore. Acta then turned to lefty Tony Sipp and watched as Jemile Weeks came through with another two-base hit, plating Sizemore and trimming the Indians' lead to 2-1.
Later in the frame, rookie setup man Vinnie Pestano entered with two outs and a runner on third base, and struck out Josh Willingham to escape further harm.
That set the stage for Perez.
Six pitches in, Perez struck out Brandon Allen on a foul tip. Five pitches later, Conor Jackson went down looking. Another pair of tosses from Perez, and Kurt Suzuki popped out weakly to shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who watched the ball fall into his glove to secure the win for Cleveland.
For Perez, the quick and overpowering outing netted his 30th save of the season.
"It's a nice milestone," he said. "But it doesn't mean much."
Perez is more interested in larger goals.
The type of goals that require keeping an eye on what the Tigers are doing.
"We don't have much time left on the calendar," said the closer.