With Ivan Nova having not seen any real game action since August 21, no one knew what to expect going into his first start since coming off of the disabled list with an injured right shoulder. Nova had struggled mightily in the second half — he was 1-4 with a 7.28 ERA since the All-Star break before today — so it seemed like a giant leap of faith to expect immediate success.
But with his six-plus innings of three-hit ball in their 5-3 win over a Tampa Bay Rays team that continues to nip at their heels, Nova suddenly has the Yankees feeling pretty good about themselves.
“Everything,” Joe Girardi said bluntly when asked what he liked about Nova’s outing. “His fastball was outstanding, his curveball was really good today, his location, the quick outs that he got. You think about it, he was on about an 80 pitch count and he got into the seventh inning. It seems like before this little layoff, he was struggling with command, and (what he did today) was tough to do.”
It was clear from the get-go that Nova had his stuff working. His fastball was hitting 95 mph on the gun, and his breaking ball was generating swings-and-misses. He allowed just two runs (one of which was plated after he left the game) while striking out eight in an extremely encouraging performance.
After the game, you couldn’t wipe the smile off of his face.
“It felt really good,” Nova said. “I was going crazy the last few days because I couldn’t pitch.”
• After the game, Nova dismissed the notion that he had anything to prove, but the truth is, he was probably fifth in the rotation pecking order entering today’s start. CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda are the clear-cut top two, Phil Hughes is coming off of a tremendous start, and Andy Pettitte is set to return on Tuesday. Suddenly, the Yankees rotation looks like it could be the strengthen it was earlier in the season with all of its horses in place. (It’s crazy to think that CC is probably the biggest concern at the moment.) “I don’t feel like I need to prove anything,” Nova said. “I was struggling and I wanted to pitch better. That’s what I was thinking.”
• Nova was asked about how much the shoulder had really been bothering him during that rough patch that he had before going on the DL. The rest certainly looked like it benefited him today. “That day when they put me on the DL, it was really bad,” he said.
• After pretty much cruising through the first five innings, Nova finally gave up a run on Evan Longoria’s solo shot with two outs in the top of the sixth. Girardi came out to talk to him, which led you to believe that Nova was done, but it was just a rare mound visit from the skipper. He left Nova in, and he got B.J. Upton to strikeout to end the inning. “Just to tell him, ‘Let’s get the next guy,’ ” Girardi said when asked what he told Nova. ” ‘Forget (the home run). Turn the page; let’s go.’ ”
• Here’s catcher Chris Stewart on what he saw from Nova: “Just the confidence level was there. He was back. That’s the guy you want out there.”
• Nova’s performance somewhat overshadowed another huge homer from Curtis Granderson. Granderson connected for a two-run shot in the second to get the scoring starting, hitting his fifth long ball in the last six games and 39th overall. “The big thing is just trying to get something up in the zone that you can hit,” Granderson said of his at-bat against James Shields, who he came into the game hitting just .107 against in his career. “You know he has a good changeup, and he was also using his curve a lot, so you can’t sit on one pitch.”
• Before his recent hot streak, Granderson had been slumping, which led to him being dropped from the two-hole. His batting average is still down, but he’s on pace for career highs in homers and RBI. “I never go into (a season) thinking what my average should be,” he said. “I’ve never looked at average as an important stat. It’s about scoring runs and driving in runs.”
• Granderson’s homer was immediately followed by a solo shot from Eduardo Nunez, who has had his way with Shields. When asked how he explains his success against him, Nunez had no answer. “I don’t know,” he said with a shrug. “He’s a great pitcher.”
• Before the game, Girardi talked about how important he felt it was to get Nunez right back in the field after last night’s error. Prior to the game, Girardi said he had a chat with Nunez. “I said, ‘You know, you made a lot of good plays,’ ” Girardi recalled. ” ‘You can’t focus on the one that you didn’t make. Learn from it, and move on. Turn the page.’ ”
• It sounded like the pep talk meant a lot to Nunez. “It’s always a good feeling when the manager gives you comforting,” he said.
• It was important that the Yankees not get complacent with a 3-0 lead, and they added a big run in the fifth with two outs. Ichiro singled and stole second to get himself into scoring position, and Derek Jeter singled up the middle to drive him in and extend the lead to 4-0. “It’s a great at-bat,” Girardi said. “You’re talking about a really good pitcher, and Ich to get the base-hit and get to second, Jeet put together a long at-bat to give him a chance to steal… That’s the thing about Derek – he’s not going to try to do too much in that situation, and that’s why he’s successful so often.”
• Nova was pulled after giving up a leadoff single Jeff Keppinger in the top of the seventh, coming out to a loud ovation from the crowd. He was replaced by Boone Logan, who gave up a double to Ryan Roberts to put runners on second and third. Joba came into replace him, getting Sam Fuld to ground out for the second out, but that was followed by a two-run single from Luke Scott to cut the lead to 4-3. Joba didn’t let it spiral out of control, though, and struck out Desmond Jennings to end the inning and preserve the lead.
• A-Rod came through with a big RBI single in eighth to give the Yankees an insurance run. Of course, he was helped out Upton, who completely misplayed a ball off the bat of Robinson Cano in center field (yet, somehow it was ruled a double).
• The win gives the Yankees a four-game lead over the Rays in the division, and for the moment, a half-game lead over the Orioles. Baltimore plays the A’s tonight at 9 p.m. “This is where you want to be,” Girardi said. “You want an opportunity to play in the postseason. Let’s go back to day one in spring training, we talked about how tough our division was going to be. It hasn’t disappointed.”
Associated Press photo