First Pitch: It's Ivan's turn

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Opportunity knocks for Ivan Nova Sunday afternoon at Tropicana Field. And for his and the Yankees' sake, the 26-year-old right-hander had better answer the door.

For 10 weeks since coming off the disabled list, Nova has been the second-best starter in the Yankees' rotation, going 6-3 with a 2.45 ERA since June 29.

Ivan Nova

Ivan Nova

#47 SP
New York Yankees

2013 STATS

  • GM16
  • W7

  • L4

  • BB27

  • K89

  • ERA3.17

But today, he is being asked to pitch, arguably, in their most important game of the season, when they try to accomplish the dual aims of averting a devastating sweep by the Tampa Bay Rays, one of the teams the Yankees are chasing for a wild-card berth, and to wipe away the memory of yet another disappointing performance by CC Sabathia, their one-time ace.

Nova is being asked to do it coming off his worst performance since April, when he allowed four runs in 6 1/3 innings to the Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday. The Yankees wound up winning the game, but it raised some of the same old questions about Nova, most of which involve his mental toughness and ability to shake off adversity.

"I saw him bounce back in that game, which made me feel good about it," said Joe Girardi, referring to the fact that Nova allowed all four runs in the second inning but was still able to pitch into the seventh. "I didn’t make too much of him giving up the four runs in that inning, because when it was all said and done, he ended up giving you seven and he bounced back, and that was the important thing. He struggled the second half and the first month, but again he has turned a corner, and you’ve got to keep him going that away."

Sunday offers the perfect opportunity for Nova to prove that he truly has turned that corner, and not just peeked around it. With a strong outing Sunday (first pitch 1:40 p.m. ET) -- the Rays are throwing Alex Cobb, who is 3-1 with a 2.21 ERA lifetime against the Yankees -- Nova cannot only keep alive the illusion that the Yankees can still find a way to play ball this October. He can also stride through the opening left by Sabathia for a second reliable starter to go along with Hiroki Kuroda.

QUESTION: Do you believe in Ivan Nova? Or do you still get a little antsy when he is on the mound? Let us know in the comments section or via my Twitter feed, @ESPNNYYankees.

UP NOW: The Rapid Reaction from last night's 4-2 loss, as well as a column on Sabathia, the pitcher formerly known as Ace, as well as postgame notes, including Girardi's reaction to Alfonso Soriano styling on a fly out.

ON DECK: Series finale, Nova (7-4, 3.17) versus Cobb (8-2, 2.85), and the Yankees desperately trying to avoid a sweep. Clubhouse open at 10:30 a.m., and I'll be there with the lineups and all the pregame news, so check in right after breakfast. And as always, thanks for your kind patronage here at ESPNNewYork.com.