- Wallace Matthews, ESPN Staff Writer
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Every time out, they send him out into slightly deeper water, and a little farther from shore.
And so far, he has yet to drown.
Friday night, he nearly swam all the way across the channel, made it into the eighth inning for the first time in his career and if Mark Teixeira, who had made a nearly impossible play earlier in the game, had made a routine one on Nova's final batter, he probably would have made it out of the eighth, too.
The offense was supplied by Curtis Granderson, who before this night looked like the Yankee to have made the most complete transformation in the shortest period of time.
But no Yankee has turned his fortunes around quicker or more completely than Nova. Less than three weeks ago, Nova's spot was skipped in the rotation, his place taken by 38-year-old, roly-poly Bartolo Colon, and his future seemed to be either the bullpen or Scranton. Certainly not the Bronx.
But then Phil Hughes got hurt, Nova got another chance, and given the way he has pitched since it is not only going to be tough to get him out of the rotation, it is tough to get him out of a game.
Two starts back, he went 6 1/3 innings against the White Sox. Five days ago, it was 6 1/3 against the Blue Jays. Friday night, 7 1/3 against the Texas Rangers, the team that ended the Yankees' 2010 season in this very ballpark.
Pitching to contact -- he got only two swinging strikes all night and didn't have a strikeout until the seventh inning -- Nova held the Rangers to two hits and no earned runs, the only Texas run scoring after Rafael Soriano surrendered a single, scoring a runner put on base by Teixeira's error.
Nova buried the Rangers, literally, with his assortment of heavy sinkers and sharp curveballs that draw baseballs to the ground the way moths are drawn to a streetlight.
The first four Texas outs of the game were ground balls to Robinson Cano at second. All three outs of the third inning were groundouts to Alex Rodriguez at third. Derek Jeter handled all three outs of the fourth. In fact, of the first 15 Texas outs of the game, 12 came on grounders.
Nova was helped tremendously by his infield -- A-Rod made two sparklers at third, Jeter did one of his patented jump throws from the hole, Cano turned a neat double play and Teixeira practically levitated on a rare line drive headed up the first base line -- but the real story of the game was the development, practically before our eyes, of the kid pitcher who couldn't last five innings in April threatening to go all the way on the first weekend of May.
"He is taking steps,'' Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "You can see him growing in front of us and that's what you want to see from young pitchers. Now he's showing that he can do it and I think that's important for his confidence going forward.''
The question of whether Nova had confidence issues lingered in the air of spring training, left over from last year when he only made it to the end of the sixth one time in eight starts. Now, it seems not only like a moot point, but a ridiculous question to begin with.
"I don't know if it was ever a confidence thing,'' said Russell Martin, who did not know Nova until this spring. "If he's doing good, they'll leave him in, and lately, he's been doing good. That has to build confidence in a young pitcher.''
Nova, a cheerful 24-year-old, says he never worried about the possibility of demotion, just concentrated on getting better at his job. For a couple of starts, he shelved his curveball in favor of a newly developed slider-slash-cutter, but laid that aside when he regained the touch on his curveball, a pitch he used to good effect Friday night.
"I know I'm not a big strikeout pitcher,'' Nova said. "I just try to locate my pitches and let my fielders do their job.''
Nova got all the offense he needed in the first inning from Granderson, who before Nova's blossoming was unquestionably the Yankee who had made the greatest transformation from last season to this one.
Playing on Fireworks Night at The Ballpark -- the site of the now -- famous swing rebuilding session with hitting coach Kevin Long last August -- Granderson launched the first rocket of the night on the fourth pitch of the game from lefthander Matt Harrison, a moon shot that landed in the second deck in right, 433 feet from the launching pad.
With Jeter, who led off the game with a single, on base, the Yankees took a 2-0 lead that would hold up all night. Granderson added a more modest bomb in the seventh, off righthander Ryan Tucker, for the capper on what became a 4-1 victory.
"I don't consider myself a power hitter by any means,'' said Granderson, who took the AL lead in home runs with 10. "If you measure me up against an Alex Rodriguez or a Ryan Howard, those guys and 30, 40, 50 pounds heavier than me. I'm not sure what it is. I need everything to be right for me to hit one out.''
Clearly, everything was right on Friday night, for Granderson, for Nova and for the Yankees.
"We needed that,'' said Girardi, whose team snapped its first three-game losing streak of the season. "After the way we played in Detroit, we needed a lift, and this was a big one.''
Nick Swisher was originally in the starting lineup, batting second, but was a late scratch, suffering from a bad head cold. Granderson, originally ninth in the order, was slid into the 2-hole, and the rest is history. Asked if Swisher would play on Saturday, Girardi said, "I hope so.'' ... Colon (2-1, 3.00) gets the start Saturday night against LHP Derek Holland (3-1, 4.66). First pitch 8:05 p.m.