Commentary

Nova doesn't know what pressure is

Rookie stays cool in the August heat -- and in the midst of the AL East race

Updated: August 30, 2010, 10:32 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

CHICAGO -- In every walk of life, there are those who make things complicated and those who keep them simple.

Likewise in baseball, there are pitchers who sweat every pitch and pitchers who break the game down to nothing more than a game of catch at 60 feet, 6 inches.

In the New York Yankees' rotation, there is one of each. A.J. Burnett is the one who sweats every pitch, flogs himself over every mistake, makes the game even bigger and more terrifying than it already is, or ever should be.

Then there is Not-A.J. Burnett, also known as Ivan Nova.

Nova, a 23-year-old Dominican with all of 14 major league innings under his belt, has the enviable ability to pitch a major league game for the New York Yankees in the midst of a pennant race as if he were still throwing for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre against the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs.

"No pressure, no pressure," Nova said Sunday afternoon, after stifling the Chicago White Sox for 5 2/3 innings to win the only pitchers' duel of a bat-crazy weekend in Chicago. "I'm just having fun, throwing strikes, that's it."

[+] EnlargeIvan Nova
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesHe looks like a skinny kid, but Ivan Nova is coming up big in the Yankees' rotation.

It is the kind of attitude some of the higher-priced talent on the Yankees' staff might want to adopt and the kind of outlook that can make a difference in a race that is destined to be decided not just by the best team -- 130 games into the season, you can barely slide a sheet of paper into the gap separating the Yankees from the Tampa Bay Rays, their dogged divisional rivals -- but by the team that performs best under what is usually described as postseason pressure.

Nova would substitute the word "fun," and whether he is oblivious to what is going on around him, or simply impervious to it, the effect is the same. With 32 games left to play, it appears the Yankees have found a keeper in the young right-hander with ice water in his veins.

Asked if he was nervous before going out for his second major league start -- even amid reports that MLB is investigating his use of vitamin supplements -- Nova just smiled. "No nerves," he said. "Emotions."

It is an interesting and important distinction and one that sometimes even the most seasoned veterans never quite get a handle on. "Nerves" is misplacing home plate after giving up an important hit, or grooving a fastball after surrendering a walk, or blowing your cool after not getting a call from the home plate umpire. Lack of composure is storming down the runway after a bad inning and trying to put your pitching hand through the clubhouse door.

"Emotions" is something quite different. It is being able to channel your ability as the situation demands, being able to dial up the extra mph when needed, or sneak over a changeup when everyone in the park, especially the hitter, is waiting on the fastball.

Controlled emotion and unexpected composure were what Nova was all about on Sunday, even when Joe Girardi, ever cautious and in love with his matchups and scouting reports, came out to get him just 88 pitches into a performance that seemed to have a lot more left in it.

"I usually throw a hundred, a hundred-something pitches," Nova said. "But if he says it's time, it's time."

Once Nova left, the game became the usual pastiche of mix-and-match relievers, from Boone Logan to Kerry Wood to Joba Chamberlain to Mariano Rivera. On this day, the machinations worked and the Yankees came away with a 2-1 victory that left them a half-game ahead of the Rays pending Tampa Bay's Sunday night game against the Red Sox.

Nova (1-0) not only helped salvage what easily could have become a disastrous road trip -- the Yankees started out 1-2 in Toronto and lost the first one here Friday night before rebounding to finish 3-3 -- he provided some badly needed stability to a rotation that just 48 hours earlier looked to be coming apart at the seams after Burnett couldn't get out of the fourth inning, allowing all nine runs in a 9-4 defeat.

"He'll get another start, I can tell you that much," said Girardi, still unwilling to publicly commit to Nova for the final five weeks of the season. "We've asked this young man to step up and that's exactly what he's been doing. He's been lights-out so far."

Nova got one more out and allowed one fewer run than he had five days before in Toronto, when, inserted into the rotation to replace the struggling Javier Vazquez, he held a powerful Blue Jays lineup to two runs. The Yankees would lose that game, 3-2, after David Robertson gave up an eighth-inning home run to Jose Bautista.

But the improvement was greater than what the box score showed. Mixing a sharper curveball and a baffling change in with his 95 mph fastball, Nova retired the first five batters he faced, struck out five in the first three innings, and didn't allow a ball to be hit into the air until Andruw Jones flied out with one out in the fourth.

And after Marcus Thames -- who is making everyone forget that this lineup is missing Alex Rodriguez, Lance Berkman and now, Mark Teixeira -- homered in the second (his third HR in two days and fifth in his past four starts), and was followed by Brett Gardner's RBI single in the third, the Yankees and Nova had all the runs they would need to get them through the day.

After two games in which 34 runs had been scored, only three would be scored on this day.

"He's a tough guy," Francisco Cervelli said of Nova. "I know him from Triple-A and he's always the same way, just relaxed, throws his pitches for strikes, nothing different."

Cervelli had a career day of his own, with the first four-hit game of his career at, he believed, any level of ball. More importantly, he made the throw of the game, cutting down pinch-runner Brent Lillibridge after a leadoff single by Paul Konerko in the eighth inning. When Jones, the next batter, singled, and Joba Chamberlain wild-pitched him to second, that caught-stealing loomed almost as large as anything Nova did.

But not quite. On a day in which the Yankees asked a veritable kid to perform with the poise of a veteran, Nova gave them even more than they could have hoped for.

"It makes a lot of my decisions easier," said Girardi, who announced that following two days of reflection, Burnett would remain in the rotation and make his scheduled start on Wednesday against the Athletics.

Nova didn't exactly do it all alone. He got some help from his brother in the Dominican Republic, and his mother, Altagracia, who lives in New York, both of whom reminded him that the game up here is the same game he played so well down there.

"They just told me, 'Don't feel pressure, it's just baseball,'" he said.

Asked if he really believed that, Nova just smiled. "It's the same ball, the same game. Everything's the same," he said.

For him, maybe. For the Yankees, however, everything looks a lot different than it did Friday night.

GAME NOTES: Teixeira said he hoped to play Monday night against Oakland at the Stadium even though the bone bruise on his right thumb was not significantly better than it was Saturday night, when he came out after three innings. ... Berkman had a successful pregame running drill and will now go to Double-A Trenton for a two-game rehab assignment before rejoining the Yankees later this week. "I know the fans are looking forward to seeing me continue my pursuit of the Mendoza Line," he joked. ... Pitching matchup for the opener of the 10-game homestand: Dustin Moseley (4-2, 2.53) vs. RHP Trevor Cahill (14-5, 2.43). First pitch at 7:05 p.m.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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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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