- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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TORONTO -- The manager of the New York Yankees dismissed the question literally with a wave of his hand: Would Ivan Nova, who pitched 5 1/3 innings of six-hit, two-run ball against the Toronto Blue Jays on Monday night, get another chance to start in the Yankees' depleted rotation?
"That's too early to talk about,'' Joe Girardi said, despite having one absolutely dependable starter in CC Sabathia, one very talented novice in Phil Hughes, and three guys who are about as predictable as a three-card monte game.
As in, turn it over. You lose.
So Girardi's reticence about giving Nova, a 23-year-old righty with steely nerves that belie his inexperience -- all of three major-league innings coming in -- another chance in a rotation that relies on A.J. Burnett, Javier Vazquez and Dustin Moseley (who right now is the best of the three) can probably be attributed to the caginess of a manager who never wants to show his hand until all the money is on the table.
Girardi's reticence on another subject, Jose Bautista -- the Blue Jays player who single-handedly beat Girardi's team with two home runs and all three runs batted in Toronto's 3-2 victory at the Rogers Centre -- was just as easy to read.
Asked point-blank if he had any suspicions on how Bautista, a seven-year pro who had never hit more than 16 home runs in a season, could have suddenly become a monster, now leading the majors with 40, the manager said this: "No, I don't have any suspicions. It's guy that's playing every day. Sometimes when a guy gets a chance to play every day in one spot, they figure it out.''
Unless, of course, someone figures him out first. It is true that the 29-year-old Bautista has had only one full season in the major leagues, when he came to bat 532 times for the 2007 Pittsburgh Pirates and hit 15 home runs. Still, coming into this season, Bautista had hit a total of 59 home runs in 1,754 at-bats -- a rate of roughly one home run every 30 at-bats.
This year, he has hit 40 homers in 438 at-bats, or one in every 10.9. It doesn't take a mathematician to figure out that all of a sudden, Bautista is hitting home runs approximately three times more often than he had ever hit them before.
So much for the old Back of the Baseball Card Theory. Clearly, Bautista has had some sort of professional epiphany. And if it seems harsh to judge, that is the climate that baseball has wrought with its laissez-faire --or was it lazy/fair?-- policy toward performance-enhancing drugs in that "loosey-goosey era'' we all became so familiar with.
Seeking an educated opinion, I cornered Alex Rodriguez at his locker. "Alex,'' I said, "if a guy suddenly goes from 15 home runs to 40 home runs over the course of a season, does that make your antennae go up?''
A-Rod got that inscrutable little smile on his face, shook his head slightly, grabbed his dry cleaning and ran out of the clubhouse as fast as a man on the disabled list with a calf strain could possibly go.
Clearly, the code of baseball omerta still exists, and even though the Yankees had every reason to be incensed with Bautista -- not only did he belt the decisive home runs, he also incited a bench-clearing discussion in the sixth and Cadillac-ed it around the bases after touching David Robertson for the game-winner in the eighth, punctuating his stroll with an exaggerated double fist-pump -- no one was willing to go where few not named Jose Canseco have ever dared.
"He's had a great season,'' Girardi said. "And he's put together an unbelievable second half.''
So for now, we'll leave it at that. The unstoppable force that is Jose Bautista was the story of the game, with the unflappable presence that was Ivan Nova a worthy sidebar.
And in fairness, Bautista is a Blue Jay, not a Yankee, and therefore technically not their problem unless he is coming to the plate.
Nova, on the other hand, could be the asset the Yankees need to get them through a rough patch in their season, with Andy Pettitte on the disabled list for a couple more weeks at least (he is scheduled to throw in the bullpen on Friday), Burnett terminably inconsistent and Vazquez consistently mediocre, with a fastball to match.
Monday night, Nova got into first-inning trouble by allowing hits to the first two batters and then (wisely) pitching around Bautista to load the bases. Then, he got a huge break when Vernon Wells hacked at a 2-0 pitch and popped it to short left, and an even bigger one when Fred Lewis tried to score from third. Brett Gardner easily threw Lewis out at the plate, and from there Nova settled down.
Until the third inning, that is, when he hung a slider to Bautista with a runner on, then watched the ball disappear into the right-field seats.
The Yankees, who had scored in the first inning on Robinson Cano's RBI double, tied the game on Jorge Posada's RBI double in the sixth. But mostly they struck out -- 12 times against starter Brandon Morrow and once more against each of three Toronto relievers. The 15 Ks were two more than they suffered at the hands of Felix Hernandez and the Seattle Mariners on Friday, and two fewer than the 17 times they went down at the hands of Cliff Lee and six Texas Rangers relievers on Aug. 11.
"He was tough,'' Mark Teixeira said of Morrow. "He didn't give us much to hit at all. Sometimes you have to live with nights like those.''
Especially when your lineup lacks A-Rod and Derek Jeter (night off) and features two players -- Nova and Eduardo Nunez -- who were in Triple-A a week ago.
Still, Nova pitched like a guy who's been here before, even though his entire big-league resumé consisted of three scoreless innings, two against the Detroit Tigers and one against the Minnesota Twins, back in May. Mixing in a changeup with a fastball that at times touched 97 mph, Nova handled that portion of the Jays lineup not named Bautista, and when Girardi pulled him two batters after the bench-clearing incident -- Bautista took exception to a pitch that was high but not all that inside, took a few steps to the mound, and was restrained by Girardi as both benches emptied and milled around for awhile -- it felt like a quick hook.
And when, two innings later, Robertson left a fastball over the plate where Bautista could gobble it up, it felt like another excellent but wasted performance by a Yankees starter.
"That first inning told me he's not afraid of anything,'' Teixeira said of Nova. "He got into a tough spot and he didn't let it get to him. You don't see that too often in a young pitcher.''
As for the sixth-inning brouhaha, Teixeira was similarly impressed. "It didn't rattle him,'' he said. "A lot of guys would have lost their cool after something like that but it didn't affect him one bit.''
The same could not be said of Bautista. "I don't know what that was all about,'' Teixeira said. "It couldn't have been the pitch. There was something else going on there, but I couldn't tell you what it was.''
Couldn't or wouldn't, it really doesn't matter. The Yankees can dismiss the strange case of Jose Bautista, the man with the explosive bat and temper, all they want.
But it won't be as easy to dispose of Ivan Nova with a dismissive wave of the hand. What he gave the Yankees on Monday night is something that, for them, has been in exceedingly short supply lately.