Commentary

Ivan Nova earns firm grip on No. 4 spot

After early spring struggles, the Yanks' pitcher sealed his spot in the starting rotation

Updated: March 17, 2011, 1:37 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- The pitching line on Ivan Nova: Six innings pitched. No hits. No walks. One hit batter. Four strikeouts.

And one very firm grip on the No. 4 spot in the New York Yankees' starting rotation.

Going into Wednesday night's game against the Baltimore Orioles, Nova's hold on that spot seemed a lot less secure than it was over the winter, when it was decreed to him by GM Brian Cashman once it became clear that neither Cliff Lee nor Andy Pettitte would pitch for the Yankees in 2011.

Coming out of the game, it now looks as if someone will have to pry that spot out of his hands with a crowbar. If, indeed, it can still be done.

Turning in what Joe Girardi called "probably'' the best Yankees pitching performance of the spring -- after all, he is Girardi, a man notoriously averse to making simple declarative statements -- Nova did what the manager had said before the game the four remaining candidates for the two open spots in the rotation needed to do.

He put some distance between himself and the rest of the field.

What makes Girardi's qualifier --"probably'' -- so ludicrous is that there's not even a contender for second place. Apart from clipping leadoff batter Robert Andino with a curveball on his secnd pitch of the game, and allowing Adam Jones to reach on an error by Alex Rodriguez, Nova essentially pitched a six-inning perfect game.

And he did it with a pitch he rarely throws, one that he grips and delivers like a cutter but moves like a slider. Whatever you want to call it, a "slutter'' or a "clider,'' it was humming death to the orioles hitters, three of whom went down flailing at it.

"My slider's like a new toy. For the first time throwing it, it was pretty good,'' said Nova, who could hardly contain his glee with his performance, coming five days after his worst outing of the spring, in which he allowed two runs and needed an untidy 60 pitches to navigate three rocky innings against the Blue Jays.

Against the Orioles, he last twice as long and worked half as hard, using just 59 pitches to get through six and needing to head to the bullpen to throw another 15-20 pitches to get in his intended amount of work.

[+] EnlargeIvan Nova
AP PhotoIvan Nova pitched six scoreless innings against the Orioles on Wednesday.

"That's as good as it gets,'' Girardi said. "I mean realistically, he coulda went out for the seventh, and he may not have been in trouble pitch-count wise. When you start talking about length and efficiency and being in control, what did he have, two baserunners?''

More importantly, Nova seemed to establish a rapport with his catcher, Russell Martin -- the two of them agreed in the bullpen before the game that his curveball wasn't up to par, but his slider looked great -- and also seemed to put some distance between himself and whatever self-doubt he had allowed to creep into his 24-year-old head between his last outing and this one.

"I knew I pitched bad last time,'' he said. "Not too bad, but I was looking forward to the next one, you know? I did a good one today.''

Most tellingly, when he was asked if he felt he had showed the Yankees how good he really was, Nova replied, "I showed myself how good I am. I got to keep trusting myself and my pitches.''

It lent credence to the opinion voiced earlier this spring by pitching coach Larry Rothschild that a lot of Nova's problems last season, when he seemed to struggle the second and third time through a lineup and had trouble limiting damage in innings that got out of his control, were rooted more in sefl-confidence issues than issues of ability.

"He impressed me out there,'' Martin said. "And I think he impressed himself.''

Certainly, he impressed his manager, who for public consumption may continue to maintain that he is auditioning four pitchers -- Nova, Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Sergio Mitre -- for two spots, but in reality now has one only spot left to fill.

"I'm not going to make any decisions tonight,'' Girardi said. "We're going to continue to look at their body of work.''

But he acknowledged, "Sometimes you weigh the last few starts more than the initial couple because you're only going 2-3 innings. When you start going through lineups the second and third time, and have to use a multitude of pitches, that's when guys can start to separate themselves.''

By that standard, Nova opened several lengths between himself and the rest of the field Wednesday night. In fact, that race may be over.

Notes

The Yankees got a two-run homer from Rodriguez in the sixth inning off reliever Clay Rapada to open a 4-0 lead, and tacked on five more in the seventh on their way to a 10-0 win, their first victory after six straight losses. For the first time all spring, they used a lineup of all their regulars in the same game, and got at least one hit from all of them except Brett Gardner ... Mariano Rivera pitched the seventh and allowed the orioles first hit of the night, a ringing double to right-center by Vladimir Guerrero ... Rafael Soriano was slated to pitch but told Girardi he would prefer not to pitch against an AL East team in the spring. Girardi scratched him for Wednesday and Thursday night's game against his former team, the Tampa Bay Rays. He said Soriano would throw in a minor-league game instead ... Mark Teixeira got hit by a pitch on the left hand by Rapada in the sixth. Girardi said he was OK ... Nick Swisher was OK, too, after vaulting the bullpen fence in a futile attempt to catch a foul ball. "I said very good, athletic play, Swish, Outstanding effort. Now don't do it again,'' Girardi said ... Martin has discarded the brace he wore for a week on his surgically-repaired right knee, saying it fet too restrictive. "My knee feels great,'' he said. "Nearly 100 percent. I'm not really thinking about it anymore.'' ...The Yankees announced six cuts after the game: RHP Andrew Brackman, INFs Kevin Russo and Brandon Laird and OF Melky Mesa to AAA Scranton, and pitchers Steve Garrison and Ryan Pope to AA Trenton ... Phil Hughes starts Thursday night's game against the Rays, who will send RHP Chris Bootcheck to the mound. First pitch, 7:05 p.m., 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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