CHICAGO -- The first reaction Max Scherzer had when asked about his curveball was a face that looked like a secret had gotten out.

"Are we finally announcing it?" he asked with a smile. "I've been trying to keep it down."

Scherzer did a pretty good job; nobody had mentioned it for more than a month until this week. He had mixed it so well with his slider that it just never became obvious.

It was almost as well-kept of a secret as the pitching display Scherzer has put on for the better part of three months. That's becoming impossible to hide now, too.

Somewhere along the line during Justin Verlander's follow-up to his American League MVP Award season, the Tigers got another ace. He's the same pitcher who spent the previous two years trying to emerge from Verlander's shadow.

"Max is one of those guys, to me, that doesn't know how high his ceiling can be if he doesn't get in the way of himself," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said last month. "I don't mean that disrespectfully. The point I'm trying to make is, when he realizes how good he can be, there's no ceiling for him. He has a chance to be something special."

Scherzer has always had the potential, and he showed it with a dominant summer two years ago. Even so, it's hard to say many expected anything like this.

Scherzer leads the Major Leagues in strikeouts, one more than Verlander heading into what might be their most important starts of the season against the White Sox the next couple nights. Scherzer starts Wednesday with about 40 fewer innings pitched this year than Verlander.

Scherzer is on pace for the highest rate of strikeouts per nine innings by a Major League starter since Kerry Wood in 2003, and the highest by an AL starter since Pedro Martinez in 2000. Scherzer's streak of 10 consecutive starts with at least eight K's is the longest by a Major Leaguer since Martinez a decade ago.

It's not just strikeouts. Scherzer is 9-1 with a 2.61 ERA in his past 13 starts, averaging around 6 2/3 innings a game while limiting his opponents to a .223 average. The same right-hander who threw 119 pitches at Yankee Stadium on April 29 without getting through the fifth inning, has lasted seven innings or more in each of his past five starts.

"He's using all four [pitches] right now," pitching coach Jeff Jones said. "His fastball's always been great. His changeup's always been really good. The fact is, his slider's gotten better. He's throwing a curveball. He's gotten a lot better."

It's not quite as good as Verlander's stuff, but the dominance has been Verlander-like. According to at least one scout who watched both pitch against the White Sox at Comerica Park over Labor Day weekend, Scherzer is pitching better than Verlander at this point.

And in a season during which the Tigers have struggled to meet preseason expectations or match last season's accomplishments, Scherzer might be the biggest reason the Tigers could be more dangerous than last year's club if they find a way to get into the playoffs.

"In my eyes, and I think [in the eyes of] a lot of guys in here, we have two No. 1s," catcher Gerald Laird said Monday. "When [Scherzer] goes out there, we expect to win."

Scherzer is one of the best pitchers going in the AL right now, and he's doing it in the wake of one of the most challenging periods in his life. That, too, has been pretty quiet.

Scherzer is not somebody to wear his heart on his sleeve publicly. He's more apt to talk about the mechanics that went into a big pitch than the emotions that came out of it. His intensity for his work is cool and collected, not emotional. When his brother passed away suddenly in June, however, everyone looked to him with sympathy for a young man, not a pitcher.

Alex Scherzer had an MBA from the University of Missouri and a job with Morgan Stanley in St. Louis. He also had a keen interest in Scherzer's career, teaching the Detroit right-hander ways to look at his pitching in numbers rather than simply mechanics.

"He had so much going for him," Max Scherzer said in June. "He had just gotten a new job at Morgan Stanley. I was waiting to hear how spectacular it was to finish three tests in a matter of four weeks and to be able to get 90 percent on those. I know that's good. I'm waiting to hear how good. He was in a position in his life to have so much success. It's just a tragedy that he wasn't able to do that."

Max Scherzer learned of his brother's death on a Thursday and immediately headed home to St. Louis. He had a scheduled start that Saturday in Pittsburgh. After talking it over with his family, he not only decided to rejoin the Tigers and make his start, his parents and other family members made the trip with him.

"It gave us a chance to get out of the house," Scherzer said soon after. "It gave us a chance to put a smile on everybody's face, and just a chance to have something we'd love and laugh about, and that's baseball."

To this day, teammates and coaches look back at his strength in awe and admiration. He lost to the Pirates in that game, but it was irrelevant.

"To get that phone call and do what he did, I just can't imagine what was going through his mind," Laird said. "I think he gained a lot of respect from his teammates for what kind of person he is, to not miss his start."

Said Jones: "I couldn't have done what he did, and I mentioned that to Jim [Leyland] when it happened. It's a tribute to {Scherzer] just to show how much he cares about his brother and his team and his family that he was able to go out there and pitch, because I'm sure it was a very, very difficult situation. And he's handled the whole thing just as well as you can handle it.

"I'm sure he's still dealing with it, honestly."

It has almost gone overlooked in the midst of Scherzer's best season. It doesn't affect his pitching, of course, but it has affected the way he looks at baseball.

"I've learned how to look at a new way of life," Scherzer said. "I see life as you've got to enjoy it while you've got it. Enjoy the good times in life. Enjoy all the fun times that you have with people, because that's the only thing you have."

Scherzer's outlook on baseball reflects that.

"The way I look at baseball now," he said, "is it puts a smile on all my friends' and family's faces. Everybody, Tigers fans, everybody enjoys the game. Everybody enjoys watching us play, and how much a smile it puts on a kid's face -- us just going out there playing baseball -- and how much it means to everybody. When you're able to do that, that's what matters most."

If Scherzer can help the Tigers get back to the postseason -- and a win Wednesday would be huge for that -- it'll be a big smile for Detroit.