ST. PETERSBURG -- Chris Perez saw the horde of reporters approaching his locker and the Indians' closer cracked a smile. Perez saw an opportunity to possibly push the crowd toward the stall belonging to setup man Vinnie Pestano.
"I only got three outs," Perez said. "Vinnie got four. You should be talking to Vinnie."
Both Perez and Pestano were deserving of the spotlight following the Indians' 3-2 victory over the Rays on Monday night at Tropicana Field. Cleveland's late-inning combination has been a one-two punch to rival any other in the game, and the pair of arms are a large reason behind the fact that the Tribe is still very much in the postseason hunt.
Monday's win was a kind of microcosm for the season.
Rookie starter Zach McAllister turned in an admirable effort despite his own woes, and the offense scratched and clawed, producing a small sampling of run support amidst a slew of shortcomings. But there, at the end of the game, were Pestano and Perez, making the mistakes moot.
"I don't know what we'd do without Pestano and Chris Perez," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "Those guys have been huge for us."
The Indians (46-43) remain within striking distance of the American League Central's top spot largely due to their 39-2 mark when leading after seven innings. Pestano (1.64 ERA through 40 appearances) is the Tribe's primary man for the eighth, and Perez (3.15 ERA), who was just selected to his second All-Star team, shuts things down in the ninth.
Cleveland boasts a 27-3 record in games that feature both Pestano and Perez this season. In those contests, the right-handed duo has combined for 68 strikeouts across 56 2/3 innings, posting a 2.22 ERA in the process. Pestano leads the Majors with 25 holds, while Perez is tied for the American League lead in saves (26).
Give them a lead, and get out of the way.
"They have two guys that are really, really good," Tampa Bay's Luke Scott said. "To beat them, you've got to take advantage of mistakes if they present themselves. If they don't, then obviously it's going to be even tougher."
McAllister (4-1) walked four and scattered three hits, including an RBI single to Jeff Keppinger in the fourth, but the right-hander managed to limit the damage. Even after Keppinger's hit, which struck the pitcher on the right forearm, McAllister found a way to settle in and give the Indians six solid innings.
That gave the Tribe's offense some time to push a few runs across the plate against Rays righty Alex Cobb (4-6), who bowed out after 3 1/3 innings. In the first inning, Shin-Soo Choo sent a 3-2 offering from Cobb bouncing off the top of the wall in center field for what was initially ruled a leadoff home run.
After the umpires reviewed the play, however, Choo was called from the visitors' dugout and sent back to second base with a double.
"It was the right call," Acta said.
Choo quickly advanced to third base on a groundout from Asdrubal Cabrera and later scored on a two-out passed ball, pushing the Indians to a 1-0 lead. That advantage grew to 3-0 in the fourth inning, when Johnny Damon, Choo and Jason Kipnis each contributed a double, driving in two runs in the process.
The Indians had plenty of other chances, too. Cleveland went 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position, stranding eight baserunners in the game. In the fourth, the Indians had the bases loaded with no outs and came away empty handed.
"It wasn't just bases loaded, no outs," Acta said. "It was bases loaded, no outs and a 3-0 count [on Damon]. And we couldn't score a run there. That's when you start thinking, 'This might bite us later on.' But not with our bullpen. They're pretty good."
Acta had to find a way to get the ball to Pestano and Perez, though.
Filling in for Joe Smith, who was unavailable out of the 'pen on Monday, Esmil Rogers yielded a leadoff home run to Desmond Jennings in the seventh. Later in the frame, lefty Tony Sipp issued a two-out walk to Sean Rodriguez to put two runners aboard. At that point, with Ben Zobrist looming for Tampa Bay (46-44), Acta had seen enough.
It was time for Pestano to make his signature sprint from the bullpen.
"He had to beat our best guy there," Acta said.
It was Pestano who beat Zobrist, striking out the right fielder to bring an emphatic end to the inning. In the eighth, Pestano sidestepped two singles and used a 3-2 slider to freeze Brooks Conrad for an inning-ending strikeout.
"He never really looks intimidated out there," Perez said of Pestano. "He always wants the ball and he believes he can get his way out of any situation, which is how I believe. I don't think it's a coincidence that we have the same kind of mentality and we've been able to put together the run we've put together."
Perez followed suit, striking out two in a brisk ninth inning to seal the victory.
"We'd be in a pretty tough spot without C.P.," Pestano said. "He's in that position for a reason. He's being handled the ball in that situation because he's so reliable and because he was born to be a closer. He's showing that."
For the Indians, though, it is not about Pestano or Perez.
It has been both of them together that has made the difference.
"Me and Chris feel every time we go out, we can get the job done," Pestano said. "Until we're proven wrong, we're not going to believe that we can't."