CLEVELAND -- How Max Scherzer starts is usually about how he finishes. It's a philosophy about his outings. The way he's pitching, you can make a case his season is shaping out that way.
"I would say in the majority of your starts, the last 15 pitches you throw are the most important," Scherzer said after seven more strong innings and his fourth win in his last five starts, this one a 5-3 decision over the Indians Wednesday night at Progressive Field.
"You can usually hang your hat on how you execute in those situations. Tonight was one of those nights where the last 15 pitches I threw probably were some of my best."
When you look at his season, he has an argument. During his early-season struggles in which he threw 119 pitches without getting out of the fifth inning in Yankee Stadium in April, he threw those final 15 pitches in one inning, struggling to get a third out. When he was striking out 15 Pirates in May, he was using those pitches to get through the seventh in a pitching duel.
When Scherzer got to pitch No. 90 on Wednesday, he was rolling, having recovered from command problems and Casey Kotchman's two-run home run to retire 13 of the final 15 Indians he faced. But as he started the sixth inning, he was coming upon the middle of the Tribe's order for the third time, trying to protect a three-run lead.
His 91st pitch was a called third strike on Jason Kipnis to lead off the inning. Once Michael Brantley doubled with one out on his 92nd pitch and stole third base without a throw, he was trying to keep a minor run from becoming a major rally, trying to get through the sixth inning and avoid handing a situation to the middle of the bullpen.
It's the sixth inning that's the toughest to manage, Jim Leyland likes to say. For Scherzer, it's bigger than that. Whenever he has gotten through the sixth this season, he has finished with a quality start, without fail. Correspondingly, he's 9-2 when he gets that far.
"If we shut them down halfway decent, we're good enough to score enough to win," Leyland said.
With a three-run lead, Leyland played his infield back, conceding a run. Scherzer wasn't. With a mix of speeds, he kept Carlos Santana fouling off fastballs until he popped one straight up to third base on his 97th pitch.
Up came Travis Hafner, 6-for-13 off Scherzer going into the night but hitless on two strikeouts before that at-bat. After spotting two 97-mph fastballs for called strikes to put Hafner in a hole, Scherzer came up with maybe his best pitch of the night. He wasn't deceptive about it at all.
"I respect what he can do at the plate," Scherzer said. "In that situation, 0-2, I went with my best pitch and I reared back and threw as hard as I could."
He threw it at 99 mph, and spotted it on the outside corner for strike three as Hafner looked incredulously at home-plate umpire Brian Runge. It's the type of fastball command Scherzer didn't have earlier in the game.
"He threw more strikes later in the game and had better command," Indians manager Manny Acta said. "Overall, he had a pretty good fastball, as usual. We just couldn't do much with it."
It was the second straight start in which Scherzer stranded a runner on third with 99 on the corner, having done the same against the Angels last Thursday in Detroit. In that case, it was his final pitch of the night. On Wednesday, it was his 100th pitch, and Leyland was going to give him another inning with the bottom third of the order due up.
Five pitches later, Scherzer was back in the dugout. Johnny Damon struck out on three pitches. Casey Kotchman and Jack Hannahan flied out on first-pitch fastballs, the latter retired on a running catch by Quintin Berry.
If Shin-Soo Choo wasn't leading off the eighth, Leyland said, he might have given Scherzer another inning. As it was, he had done plenty.
"From a manager's perspective, this was a great game," Leyland said, "because Scherzer didn't really have to max out. This is a manager's dream."
Detroit's 14th win in 17 games kept it tied with the White Sox atop the American League Central, while bumping Cleveland back to 3 1/2 games down.
Scherzer is 3-0 during that aforementioned stretch. In his last five starts, he has allowed 10 runs on 24 hits over 32 innings with 35 strikeouts. In the process, he has filled out the front end of the Tigers' rotation, giving opposing hitters somebody else to worry about after Justin Verlander.
"He's got himself established enough and mature enough now to make some adjustments," Leyland said of his starter.
Detroit's offense should have given Scherzer a bigger lead with which to work, putting up three consecutive baserunners to lead off two different innings against Derek Lowe, but getting one run out of each of them. Still, their early runs put Detroit in command from the outset. Berry had three hits and two RBIs.