Commentary

Ivan Nova motivated by unlikely source

The Yankees pitcher credits his confidence to his mentor and 'big brother' A.J. Burnett

Updated: March 11, 2011, 4:02 AM ET
By Andrew Marchand | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- Ivan Nova pointed to answer the question. Two lockers down in the New York Yankees' clubhouse was his mentor. Who could it be?

"A.J. Burnett," Nova said.

A.J. Burnett?

Burnett has been called a lot of names over the past year.

Underachiever. Bad signing. Head case.

Mentor has not been one of them.

Burnett and Nova, though, have forged a unique and sincere friendship that could prove integral in Nova's career. It started last spring and continued when the Yankees called up Nova during the season. Nova said Burnett made him feel like his "little brother" had joined the team, showing him how everything worked in The Show.

They would talk everywhere, Nova said. The 24-year-old from the Dominican Republic and the 34-year-old from Arkansas often were seen on the bench or in the bullpen sitting next to each other. From the outside, they might appear different, but Burnett needed to share in the advice he gave Nova.

"Confidence," said Nova, who is the favorite to be the No. 4 starter after going 1-2 with a 4.50 ERA last season. "I had a couple of bad starts and they took me out of the game, and he told me I had to keep working hard and concentrate and try to get the next one to get better than the one before."

Nova might lack confidence sometimes, but he has some moxie. Nova knew that lack of confidence is the demon that gets inside Burnett's head and ruins his delivery.

"I said, 'You know it [is confidence], so why don't you do it, too?'" Nova said, chuckling. "It was funny. He was like, 'You've got to do this and you've got to do that.' And I say back, 'You've got to do it, too.' I tried to help him, and he tried to help me."

Burnett said that when he failed to hit 93 or 95 mph on the gun, Nova would yell at him and tell him to look confident out there. They clicked, Burnett thinks, because on the surface they might seem different, but on the mound they are similar, hard-fastball guys with a need to be reminded to believe in themselves.

When Burnett described what he would tell Nova, Burnett sounded as if he could have been giving the advice while looking in a mirror.

[+] Enlarge
AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall Ivan Nova is expected to be the Yankees' No. 4 starter in the 2011 season.

Burnett would always say, "Hey, man, you have to be confident out there, find your little swagger out there, develop a personality and intimidate some of these guys."

In his first season, Nova had difficulty getting through the order multiple times, which is normal for a young pitcher. In the minors, a rising prospect can overpower with a fastball. The majors are different.

"You have to use your breaking stuff more behind in the count," Nova said.

While Burnett was working on Nova's confidence, Jorge Posada and Francisco Cervelli were forcing him to use his change and curveball even when he didn't have "confidence" -- there is that word again -- in them.

"That is the way you have to pitch here," Cervelli said. "If they find out what you throw here, they make adjustments. They will kill you. If you don't do that, you have no chance."

You can't do any of it without confidence. That is where Burnett is Nova's constant companion and reminder.

"I had a couple of bad starts and they took me out of the game, and [A.J.] told me I had to keep working hard and concentrate and try to get the next one to get better than the one before," Nova said.

It all started a year ago in spring training when Burnett tried to make Nova feel more comfortable. He busted on him, like ballplayers do all day. Burnett said it was all in good fun. When Nova was called up for the first time last year, Burnett had already made him comfortable.

"It was like his little brother was here," Nova said. "He was the first person who grabbed me and showed me how everything works in the big leagues."

Burnett might have had the worst statistical season (10-15, 5.26 ERA) a Yankees starter has ever had, but if Nova turns into a legit major league starter, it could turn out that Burnett's 2010 was not a total loss.

Andrew Marchand is a senior writer for ESPNNewYork. He also regularly contributes to SportsCenter, Baseball Tonight, ESPNews, ESPN New York 98.7 FM and ESPN Radio. He joined ESPN in 2007 after nine years at the New York Post. Follow Andrew on Twitter »

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