Commentary

Nova & Co. show poise, promise in win

Ivan looks great in short stint, Bombers' pitching comes out strong again vs. Phillies

Updated: February 27, 2011, 6:56 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- So let me get this straight: Pitching was supposed to be the problem with the New York Yankees this year.

No Cliff Lee. No Andy Pettitte. And possibly, no October.

And yet, two games into spring training, the Yankees have gotten two scoreless innings out of Bartolo Colon and a spotless inning out of Joba Chamberlain, two of their bigger questions marks in every sense of the word, on Saturday.

Then, on Sunday, they got two dominant innings out of Ivan Nova, one good one each out of Sergio Mitre and Boone Logan, and an eye-popper of a debut by Dellin Betances, the 22-year-old out of Brooklyn whose ticket to Double-A has already been punched, even though he punched out three of the four Philadelphia Phillies he faced.

Ivan Nova
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireIvan Nova threw just 21 pitches Sunday, but he and the rest of the Yankees' staff came out strong over the first two spring training games.

So who's got pitching problems?

The Yankees still do, although there is hope for the future, both immediate and long-term.

They won their first game of the spring, 7-3, over the Phillies at Bright House Field, getting home runs from Curtis Granderson (a rare opposite field shot) and Jorge Vazquez, another moon shot to nearly match the one he sent over the center-field fence at The Boss on Saturday.

But the important thing was that Nova, already designated the No. 4 starter this year despite having only 42 big-league innings on his resume, pitched like a No. 1, and Betances, a 6-8 fireballer whom the Yankees see as a future top-of-the-rotation star, pitched like he was ready to be one right now.

Neither proved anything, of course, but both certainly promised plenty.

Nova, who impressed the Yankees by staring down Jose Bautista in his major league debut last year but raised eyebrows with his disturbing tendency to falter four or five innings into a start, did little to dispel that concern against the Phillies, since he worked only two innings and threw just 21 pitches.

But he reminded the Yankees, and everyone else, why they chose to take a chance on him last season when Pettitte went down with a groin injury in the middle of a tight AL East race.

"He was real good," Joe Girardi said. "You look at the six outs that he got, four ground balls and two strikeouts, it's what we want from him. We've said all along this kid is extremely talented and we like his stuff. He's young, but he's growing into a major league pitcher."

Even more pleased with Nova than Girardi was Nova himself. "Right now, I'm happy with everything," he said. "I have really good stuff. I know I can get people out. It's going really well right now."

That was refreshing talk because earlier in the week, both Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild raised the possibility that Nova's problems last season were the result of shaky confidence, not shaky stuff.

"I think he's got to pitch through some of the barriers that young kids do," Rothschild said. "That's learning how to win games at this level and push through the fact that it's not just trying to get through the fifth, but you're looking for the sixth or seventh and even deeper than that. I don't think it's fatigue. I think it's just confidence and knowing what you're capable of doing. It's nothing unusual for a younger guy."

But before and after Sunday's game, Girardi portrayed the confidence question as an issue created by the media rather than the Yankees' coaching staff. "You know, so much is made of this issue and him having a few bad innings and his confidence, but the kid bounced back," Girardi said. "It wasn't like he got hit hard one inning and then every start after that he got crushed. He went out there and performed for us. Maybe it's not an issue and we're making an issue out of it."

In two innings of work, of course, Nova didn't face any issues that threatened his confidence, real or imagined. In the first inning, he easily retired Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino and Raul Ibanez on ground balls. In the second, he caught Ryan Howard looking at a curveball and blew a high fastball past Domonic Brown.

"I don't put pressure on myself," Nova said. "I'm here because I do something good. I was aggressive, and that's a really good thing for me."

Nova gave way to Mitre, who once again is ostensibly in the running for the No. 5 slot but was given just one inning to work. He allowed the Phillies' first hit, a single to Wilson Valdez, but otherwise pitched well.

"Well, it was quick but overall I thought I threw the ball pretty good for how long I was out there," Mitre said. "It's the same as last year, just trying to win a spot, so lick your chops and get the job done and hopefully make the choice a little more difficult for them."

Logan also gave up a harmless single but no one came close to hitting Betances, who was clocked at 97 mph on the gun and made Brown, Ben Francisco -- who later hit a two-run homer off Buddy Carlyle -- and Valdez appear overmatched, striking out all three around a walk to Carlos Ruiz.

"It was exciting, man," said Betances, who has never pitched above Double-A and had never before faced major league hitters. "It was definitely a great feeling and I'm glad I got it out of the way with no trouble. I was just trying to make a good impression because it's my first spring and it's the first time Girardi and all the coaching staff has seen me pitch."

Told that GM Brian Cashman has already said he would start the season with the Trenton Thunder, Betances shrugged. "I'm just going to keep working hard," he said. "You never know."

NOTES: Jesus Montero caught eight innings and did well, according to Girardi, although he did take a foul tip off his right hand in the second inning. He also had an RBI single in the Yankees' four-run sixth. ... Ronnie Belliard, originally in the starting lineup at third, was scratched just before the game with a strained calf and was replaced by Brandon Laird. ... Girardi said Andrew Brackman, sidelined for two days with what the Yankees are calling groin discomfort, played catch after passing all his tests Sunday morning and may resume throwing on Wednesday. ... CC Sabathia makes his first start of the spring Monday afternoon against the Tigers at Lakeland. As befitting an ace, Sabathia gets the regular starting infield behind him and Francisco Cervelli behind the plate. Pitchers Mark Prior, Pedro Feliciano, Luis Ayala and Manny Banuelos will make the trip as well, although Girardi did not provide a pitching sequence. First pitch at 1:05 p.m. ET, no TV or radio.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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