Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 16, 2012

Just Off The DL, Nova’s Star Shines Again

After CC Sabathia gave back an early lead in his third straight start and the Yankees fell to Tampa Bay Friday night, leaving New York tied with Baltimore for the AL East lead, there was plenty of anxiety among fans arriving at the Stadium Saturday afternoon for the second of a three-game set against the Rays. Having been to the post-season three of the past four years but on the outside of the playoff chase with just 18 games remaining, the Rays were a desperate team prepared to go all out for victory. The Yankees, as evidenced by their ace pitcher’s indifferent outing, continued to muddle along as they had for more than two months. The 6-4 loss on Friday ended a brief two-game win streak for New York, the first time that they had won consecutive games since the middle of August.

If the concern in the stands was palpable on a sunny and breezy September afternoon, it wasn’t eased by the pitching matchup. On the hill for the Rays was the tall right-hander James Shields. The 30-year old Shields led the league with 11 complete games last season, and seems equally comfortable pitching in hostile territory as at Tropicana Field, having amassed identical 7-4 home and away records this year. The Yankees were countering with Ivan Nova, and fans understandably had to wonder what they would witness when the 25-year old took the mound.

Nova made a handful of appearances in 2010 both out of the bullpen and as a starter after being called up from AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in August. He broke camp with the Yankees last season, and posted a fine 8-4 record through June. However he had the bad luck to be the starter with minor league options remaining when both Phil Hughes and Bartolo Colon came off the disabled list, and thus was sent back to AAA. While there he worked to add an effective slider to his pitching repertoire, and when he was called back up in August Nova was unbeatable, going 8-0 over the remainder of the 2011 campaign. His 16-4 record gave him the most wins by a Yankees rookie in more than four decades. He continued his winning ways at the start of the 2012 season, eventually recording 15 consecutive winning decisions from June 2011 through May 2012. But the pitcher the New York media had dubbed Super Nova, who was 9-2 on June 17th after shutting down the Nationals 4-1, was sent to the disabled list on August 23rd, two days after his record fell to 11-7 after a loss to Toronto. In five starts prior to being sent to the DL with a diagnosis of rotator cuff inflammation, Nova was 1-3 with an unsightly 8.59 ERA.

The nervousness was amplified when the Rays’ Desmond Jennings stroked Nova’s very first pitch into center field for a clean single. But the Yankees second-year hurler responded like a season veteran, striking out Ben Zobrist on a slow sweeping curve, and then inducing a double play grounder from Evan Longoria. It was the beginning of a dominant performance that, for a day at least, calmed the nerves of jittery fans at 161st Street and River Avenue. Beginning with the strikeout of Zobrist, Nova retired 12 out of 13 batters, allowing only a 2nd inning walk to Matt Joyce while striking out five Rays during the string.

Meanwhile the Yankees took the lead in typical Yankees fashion. One out after Raul Ibanez led off the bottom of the 2nd with a walk, Curtis Granderson sent a changeup from Shields soaring into the right field seats for his team-leading 39th home run of the year. Eduardo Nunez followed by depositing a Shields cutter into the left field seats to make it 3-0.

Had it not been his first outing in almost a month that might have been enough for Nova and the Yankees. However manager Joe Girardi made it clear before the game that his starter would be limited to 80-90 pitches and was not expected to go deep into the contest. But while he remained in the game Nova looked much more like the phenom of 2011 than the dwarf star of July and August 2012. When Matt Joyce broke Nova’s consecutive out string by doubling with one away in the 5th, Nova responded by striking out the next batter. An inning later, when Longoria finally put Tampa Bay on the board with a solo homer to right, Nova again came back to strike out the next hitter for the final out of the frame.

Before Longoria could end New York’s bid for a shutout the Yankees had added a run in small-ball fashion in the last of the 5th. With two outs Ichiro Suzuki singled to center. Shields did his best to keep Ichiro bottled up; making repeated pickoff throws to first baseman Carlos Pena. But eventually the Rays pitcher had to make a pitch to Derek Jeter, and when he did Ichiro took off for second, easily beating the throw. Quickly behind 1-2 in the count, Jeter patiently fouled off three would-be strikes and watched two more balls as the count went to full. On the 9th pitch the Yankees captain won the battle between pitcher and batter, sending a clean single to center that scored Ichiro.

With the score 4-1 and his pitch count at 85, Nova’s day was done after Jeff Keppinger led off the 7th with a single to left. As he walked off the mound the more than 46,000 in the giant ballpark rose to their feet in a prolonged ovation. The roars grew louder as Nova approached the dugout steps, and the grateful hurler doffed his cap. “I don’t know the last time I heard that,” he later said of the ovation. “It felt good.”

The Rays dented the Yankees bullpen for two runs in that 7th inning, but New York responded by adding an insurance tally in the 8th. When 9th inning pinch hitter Elliott Johnson swung through a 94 mile per hour four-seam fastball from closer Rafael Soriano, the 5-3 victory was complete. In six-plus innings, Nova allowed two runs and four hits while walking just two and striking out eight. It was the kind of starting pitching performance the Yankees need more of, and it came from a rather unexpected but entirely welcome source. As the happy fans headed for the exits, to a person they were in agreement with their young right-hander. It felt good.

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