NEW YORK -- Since July, Ivan Nova has been arguably the Yankees' most reliable starter, winning six of his eight decisions with a 2.08 ERA.
But he has not been in the cauldron of a Yankees-Red Sox game in 14 months. Tonight will be his first start against Boston since July 8, 2012, when he held the Red Sox to two runs, just one earned, and struck out 10 in six innings as the Yankees won, 7-3, at Fenway Park.
That is the kind of performance the Yankees need tonight in the opener of this crucial series, the beginning of a 11-game stretch (four here against Boston, four against the Orioles in Baltimore and three more against the Red Sox at Fenway next weekend) that could decide whether they are a real playoff contender, or merely a September tease.
Nova is by far the Yankees' best chance for a strong starting pitching performance this weekend. Andy Pettitte, who goes tomorrow, beat Boston in his only appearance against them this season back in April, but has been up and down for most of the season. Saturday's game is in the hands of David Huff, who has pitched well in relief since being acquired from Cleveland in May, but has yet to make a start this season and is only making this one because the Yankees no longer feel they can trust Phil Hughes. And Sunday's starter, Hiroki Kuroda, simply looks gassed.
So it us up to Nova to get the Yankees off to a strong start tonight, facing right-hander Jake Peavy. Nova has generally pitched well against Boston; his career mark is 2-2 with a 4.85 ERA in six career appearances (five starts) against the Red Sox. Of the players in tonight's starting lineup, only Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz have any real numbers against Nova, but both are small sample sizes. Pedroia has four hits in eight at-bats against Nova, two of them doubles, and Ortiz is 4-for-13 (.308) with a home run.
To top it off, Nova was just named the AL's Pitcher of the Month for August, going 4-0 with a 2.08 ERA. But none of that will mean a thing if Nova doesn't begin his September the same way.
-- Peavy has never beaten the Yankees, losing all four of his career starts to them (3.96 ERA), although he has never faced them with the Red Sox. Peavy last pitched against the Yankees on June 30, 2012, as a member of the Chicago White Sox and took the loss despite fanning 11 in eight innings, in which he allowed four earned runs. At Yankee Stadium, Peavy is 0-2, 5.25, but has K'd 15 in 12 innings. Robinson Cano is 4-for-9 (.444) lifetime against Peavy, and Alfonso Soriano has three home runs off him in 32 career at-bats.
-- The Yankees might be without the services of Mariano Rivera, who threw 15 pitches in getting his first four-out save of the year on Wednesday night. Joe Girardi said he would speak to Rivera after he played catch before the game. If Mo can't go, presumably David Robertson, who had a rocky eighth inning in Wednesday's 6-5 win over the White Sox, would close, although Hughes is available out of the bullpen, too.
-- Injury update: Travis Hafner, on the DL since July 27 with a right rotator-cuff strain, played in a simulated game today in Tampa but is not close to returning. Kevin Youkilis, on the DL since June 14 with a herniated disk that required surgery, was in the clubhouse today -- carrying a backpack! -- but Joe Girardi said he hasn't done anything other than some dry swings. He's even further away than Hafner. Zoilo Almonte, out since July 20 with a sprained ankle, is playing a rehab game tonight in Trenton and might see some action later in the month. And David Phelps, on the DL since July 6 with a forearm strain, will throw a bullpen session in the next couple of days. Girardi said he is a "maybe" for the last week of the season.