CLEVELAND -- It isn't the eighth or ninth innings that have manager Jim Leyland quaking in his cleats.

For him the sixth frame is the most tenuous.

"The sixth inning is a tough inning to manage," Leyland said. "The starter doesn't want to come out. It's a tough call sometimes. I always look at it as, 'Am I leaving someone in who's better than what I'm bringing in, or am I taking out someone that's not as good as what I'm bringing in at that juncture?'"

While Octavio Dotel, Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde have held down the fort in the late innings, Brayan Villarreal has stepped up in the middle-relief role this season. In 27 games (31 1/3 innings) the right-hander has compiled a 1.44 ERA and 42 strikeouts. That has eased the burden on Leyland's shoulders when he must make the difficult call on when to pull his starter.

"You usually have a couple of seventh-inning guys to fool around with, and then you have your setup guy," Leyland said, "but the sixth inning is a really fragile inning because you're not to your late-inning bullpen yet and you're beyond your long men."

Things looking up -- way up -- for Scherzer

CLEVELAND -- Has the light bulb finally clicked on for Max Scherzer?

The right-hander spun his second consecutive sharp outing on Wednesday, when he beat the Indians with a seven-inning, two-run performance. It was the second straight game in which he yielded just three hits in seven frames. In his last eight outings -- seven of which have been quality starts -- he is 5-1 with a 2.77 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 52 innings.

"Max has started to figure some things out and correct some things in flight," manager Jim Leyland said. "I think that's helped him. I think he's a little more mature now."

Scherzer's eight strikeouts in Wednesday's 5-3 triumph increased his season total to 142, which, entering Thursday's action, placed him in a tie for third in all of baseball with teammate Justin Verlander.

Leyland attributes Scherzer's ability to miss bats to his lively fastball. Scherzer is averaging 94 mph on his heater, again tied with Verlander, this time for fifth among Major League starters, according to Fangraphs.

"He's got strikeout stuff," Leyland said. "He's got three pitches. His slider is getting more consistent, he has a good changeup and a really live fastball."

Leyland said that Scherzer, who turns 28 on Friday, has reached the point where he can submit a decent outing even when not at his sharpest, the sign of a mature hurler.

"There's a lot to that old saying that the good pitchers know how to win when they don't have their good stuff," Leyland said. "He had good stuff last night, I'm just using this as an example -- the guys that know how to get through a game or keep you in a game when they don't have their good stuff."

Berry serving as sparkplug in Tigers' lineup

CLEVELAND -- Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder have lived up to the expectations of being one of baseball's best hitting duos.

For them to drive in so many runs, however, they need guys on base to send home. Austin Jackson has excelled in the leadoff spot, and now rookie Quintin Berry has delivered out of the No. 2 hole.

"Quintin Berry has been a big help for us," manager Jim Leyland said. "He's ignited us."

Berry, batting .289 with a .373 on-base percentage and 15 stolen bases, joined the team in late May. He immediately produced out of the leadoff spot while Jackson was on the disabled list. Now he has settled into the order behind Jackson and before the RBI machines, Cabrera and Fielder. As of Thursday, Cabrera leads the Major Leagues with 82 RBIs; Fielder is tied for eighth with 69.

"All Berry has to do is stay within himself and not try to be one of the big guys," Leyland said. "Be the catalyst. Take what's there, slap the ball around, get on the bases for the big guys. He's been so good 95 percent of the time. The 5 percent of the time he hasn't been good, he's been trying to do too much."

Berry's ascent has come as a bit of a surprise. In his first year with the organization, he hit .270 for Triple-A Toledo before his promotion to Detroit. He has certainly impressed his skipper.

"If somebody would have told me that Quintin Berry would be in the big leagues by May or June, I would have said somebody is hurt," Leyland said. "I'm not going to say, 'Oh yeah, I knew all about him when he was down there and I really liked him in Spring Training.' I didn't even see much of him in Spring Training."

Worth noting

• During Monday's 3-2 loss to Cleveland, Prince Fielder left his post at first base and sprinted across the diamond to receive a throw and tag out speedster Michael Brantley. Brantley had been caught in a rundown but saw that third base wasn't occupied. That's when Fielder rushed across the field to record the out.

Manager Jim Leyland lauded Fielder's instincts.

"It's not drawn up like that in the book," Leyland said, "but that's OK."

• How have the Tigers won 14 of their last 17 contests?

"We've got exactly the combinations going that we didn't have going when we weren't playing very well," Leyland said. "We have good starting pitching, timely hitting, two-out RBIs, good defense. Earlier on we were inconsistent with starting pitching, our defense was inconsistent and we weren't getting many big hits. We've turned that around during this stretch."