Ivan Nova spent almost a month in Triple-A this season. He missed three or four starts because the Yankees rotation was overcrowded, and since he’s been back, Nova’s won seven starts in a row. He hasn’t lost since June 3, and his 15 wins this season are the most by a Yankees rookie since 1968.
Two questions: If he’d never been sent to the minors, would Nova have a shot at 20 wins this season? Or, to look at it a different way, if he’d never been sent to the minors, would Nova be nearly this good right now?
“I think when he went to the minor leagues, when he came back his mission was to be here, be a part of the rotation, and he’s been doing an outstanding job,” Andruw Jones said. “A lot of guys on this team talk with him every time he gives a run or something like that. We try and tell him, that’s it. Don’t give no more and we will give you this game. He’s been doing that, so we’re really proud of him, the way he goes about his business.”
The Yankees love the improvement of Nova’s slider, and that’s something he focused on during his stint in Triple-A. They also love his confidence and his ability to make adjustments, something that also seems to have improved since that brief demotion.
“I’m not surprised,” Nova said. “Because I know what I can do. It doesn’t stop here. I have four more starts, so I have to stay hungry… I know I’ve got tremendous stuff, I just have to put everything right and work.”
Tonight, Nova allowed only one hit after the first inning, but that’s not to say he wasn’t hit hard. The Yankees defense was outstanding, and that made a huge difference, but Nova certainly settled in. The Yankees rotation is once again overcrowded, but these days, it’s hard to imagine Nova being the odd man out. After CC Sabathia and Freddy Garcia, the pitcher with the greatest claim to a rotation spot might be the tall rookie who just keeps winning.
“He learned a lot last year and he learned a lot in the first month this year,” Girardi said. “And I think he’s taken that and used it, and used it to learn how to relax in situations. He’s around the guys, and understands what he needs to do. He’s learned fairly quickly.”
The Yankees didn’t have Mark Teixeira or Alex Rodriguez tonight, and they had only four hits, but it wasn’t only the pitching that stepped up to fill the void. The Yankees defense was outstanding, quite possibly the best it’s been all season.
“You can look back and we probably had seven outstanding defensive plays tonight,” Girardi said. “And to win games like that, you’re going to have to have that.”
Eduardo Nunez went deep into the outfield grass to get the last out of the eighth. Curtis Granderson might have saved two runs with his running catch on the warning track in the sixth. Andruw Jones might have robbed Jose Bautista of home run No. 40 with his leaping catch in the fourth. Russell Martin threw out a runner trying to steal in the third.
But the defensive focus was on Brett Gardner, the same guy who hit the pivotal two-run homer. He showed good range to catch a sacrifice fly in the first inning, then showed even better range to make a tumbling catch that became an inning-ending double play in the first.
“Gardy really saved the game in the first inning, because it very well could have been four runs and a runner on second and still one out,” Girardi said. “… Gardy had a huge night tonight. Gardy drove in two, scored one and probably saved two or three himself. You look at the game, and that’s probably the difference.”
• Girardi is at least hopeful that Alex Rodriguez will be able to play tomorrow. “I would love that,” Girardi said. “I really wanted him to go through today and turn it up and notch and take normal BP and see how the thumb feels tomorrow, see if it responds well or there’s a little setback. If he’s a little sore tomorrow we probably won’t play him, but if he feels good, I’ll probably put him in there.”
• Mark Teixeira didn’t seem especially optimistic that he would play tomorrow. He was still hobbling around quite a bit after the game.
• Dave Robertson was not available tonight, which is why Rafael Soriano handled the eighth. “(Robertson) was a little sore tonight, so we decided to give him a day off,” Girardi said. “We should have him tomorrow. My guess is we won’t have Soriano or Mo tomorrow.”
• Jones said he wasn’t sure whether his leaping catch at the wall robbed a home run or a double. It was hard to see on a replay whether that ball was going out or off the top of the wall. “I thought it was a homer,” Nova said. “Once I heard everybody, I knew it was an out, but I wasn’t thinking it was an out.”
• Gardner said his tumbling catch in the first inning — the one that started the double play — was at least partially because of positioning. “Right before the pitch, I moved over a little bit and got a good jump on it,” he said. “I was able to get over there and get it, get it in for the double play and end the inning.”
• Gardner set a career-high with his sixth home run of the season. He hit five last year.
• Nick Swisher made his second start at first base in the past two years. He made 10 starts at first in 2009.
• Mariano Rivera got his 37th save, which is four more than he had all of last year. He’s four away from No. 600 for his career. He has saved each of the Yankees past four wins and nine of the past 15.
• The Yankees moved back into first place tonight. “It’s probably going to be back and forth the next three or four weeks,” Gardner said. “The Red Sox have a good team, so it’s far from over. We haven’t made the playoffs or won the division. There’s a lot of baseball left to play, so we’ll just stay focused on tomorrow and worry about that at the end of the month.”
Associated Press photos