- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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NEW YORK -- It is fairly safe to assume that if Monday night's game between the New York Yankees and Minnesota Twins had taken place last season, Ivan Nova would not have been around to see the sixth inning, let alone pitch it.
That means he would not have fed Delmon Young the double-play pill that erased a leadoff single that put the tying run on base, nor would he have been around to win a rematch with the dangerous Jim Thome, who was just itching to send a baseball out of Yankee Stadium to wipe out a four-run lead the home team had piled up before two innings had been completed.
But this is a different season and, the Yankees hope, a different Ivan Nova.
In 2010, the 24-year-old right-hander was perhaps the greatest four-inning pitcher you ever did see -- and maybe one of the worst fifth- and sixth-inning pitchers in the major leagues.
Called up in August to shore up a pitching staff decimated by an injury to Andy Pettitte and the utter stinkitude of A.J. Burnett and Javier Vazquez, Nova was routinely lights out through four, and knocked out by six. In his third time through a lineup, opposing batters were hitting a whopping .400.
So, now, here he was in the sixth inning of a 4-3 ballgame, facing Thome, a pure DH who at four months shy of his 41st birthday retains nearly every bit of his home run power, and who, two innings earlier, had gone down and retrieved a pretty good 3-2 changeup and drove it into right field for a two-run double.
This time, the count was full again. Nova had gotten away with one changeup already. "In that situation I'm not gonna throw him another changeup," Nova said. "I've got a really good fastball, so I'm gonna trust in it."
This one was worthy of Nova's trust, a 92-mph heater that tailed in on the left-handed hitter and left him grabbing at air. That was Nova's 83rd and last pitch of the night -- the second-most he has ever thrown in a major league game -- and it was the pitch that delivered the game into the so-far flawless hands of the bullpen relay team of Joba, Sori and Mo.
Those three -- Joba Chamberlain, Rafael Soriano and, of course, You-Know-Who -- nailed down the final nine outs of what became a 4-3 Yankees victory, their third in the first four games of the new season.
But the night really belonged to Nova who, for all the hype, won just his second game in the big leagues. And more importantly, returned a measure of stability to a rotation this year shaken by concerns over Phil Hughes' fastball and the mere presence of Freddy Garcia. And of course, Burnett is still around.
That is why it is important for Nova not only to pick up where he left off in 2010, but improve upon it. "This is what we need him to do for us," said Yanks manager Joe Girardi, who admitted he flirted with the idea of going with Logan -- his left-handed specialist -- to face three-time batting champ Joe Mauer in the fifth, and again when Thome came up in the sixth.
In both cases, he resisted the urge, for two very important reasons. One is that since it's early in the season, he can. And the other is because he had to. If Ivan Nova is ever going to find his own confidence, he is going to have to feel it from the dugout first.
On this night, the Yankee dugout showed it believed in Nova, and Nova showed he deserved its trust. With the tying run on second, he got Mauer to hammer a curveball into the dirt right at Robinson Cano, who made a routine play to end the inning.
And we know what he did with Thome, a triumph of planning -- the 3-2 change in the fourth set him up perfectly for the 3-2 fastball in the sixth -- execution, and emotion; the normally low-key Nova pumped a fist on the mound as Thome swung through the heater.
"It got hairy there for a minute, especially since he was facing the middle of their lineup," said Alex Rodriguez, whose two-run homer gave the Yankees a first-inning lead. "And he made some very good pitches. Hopefully that's a sign of maturity. He's stronger, he's throwing the ball with a lot more conviction this year."
That was a bone of contention for new pitching coach Larry Rothschild, who after watching tape of Nova in action last year concluded the young man had less faith in his stuff than he should have, and certainly less than the Yankees had in it; even though Nova pitched just 42 major-league innings last season, GM Brian Cashman had designated him the team's No. 4 starter before spring training even started.
And in his final start of the spring, it seemed as though Nova had finally seen the same things in himself the Yankees thought they saw in him, when he worked his way out of a third-inning jam against the Astros to finish six workmanlike innings.
Monday night was a virtual carbon-copy -- although the stuff was better, so were the hitters, and the game was real -- and once again, Nova did exactly what the Yankees need him to do -- deliver them six innings and a lead. On most nights, the revamped bullpen will take it from there.
"He's going to have to get through these situations," Girardi said. "It's all part of learning how to pitch at this level. He was throwing the ball good and we stayed with him, and in the sixth inning he went through a tough part of the lineup. That's what we want to see. It shows that he's matured."
Nova, for his part, seems to be the same good-natured, unruffled kid the Yankees reluctantly dropped into the middle of a hot divisional race last season.
"I wasn't thinking about what happened last year," he said. "Last year, we were in a tight race and I understand I was a young guy coming in to pitch. But now, this is a new year, it's the start of the season and they give me confidence and that's important."
And at least the first time out, Nova returned the compliment.
"I have three goals this year," he said. "Win, win and win."
Jorge Posada, who seems to be adjusting to his DH role just fine, cracked a two-run homer in the second, his third in two days, that provided the margin of victory. ... The 1-2 leadoff tandem of Brett Gardner and Derek Jeter continues to struggle. They went a combined 0-for-7 with a walk, to Gardner, and their batting averages sit at .133 and .143, respectively, although Jeter hit the ball hard his last time up, a line out to deep left. Gardner's on-base percentage is .188, Jeter's .235. With the Twins starting a lefty on Tuesday, Jeter will get his first chance to leadoff this season. Gardner is expected to sit. ... Girardi came to work sporting a small bandage on his forehead, between his left eye and the bridge of his nose. "I bumped into a cabinet at home," he said. "Jumping off a counter." ... CC Sabathia (0-0, 3.00) makes his second start of the season Tuesday night against Brian Duensing (10-3, 2.62 in 2010). First pitch, 7:05 p.m. (YES).
Ivan Nova gave the Yankees just what they needed Monday. That was a first.