LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- With less than two weeks until Opening Day, the Yankees seem to have three-fifths of an outstanding starting staff.
The two question marks are the two starters you'd never expect the Yankees to have questions about -- their ace, CC Sabathia, and their No. 2, Hiroki Kuroda, who pitched like an ace for most of last season.
The back end of the rotation looks solid, even fearsome, these days now that Ivan Nova, who came to camp anointed the No. 4 starter but was pitching more like a No. 6, has turned in an ace-worthy performance in his second-to-last start of the spring.
Given a leash of 85 to 90 pitches, Nova needed just 79 to get through six innings against the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday, so Joe Girardi sent him out for the seventh, the deepest any of his starters has gone this spring. The manager allowed Nova to get the first out of the inning and then pulled him after 6 1/3 innings of scoreless, two-hit ball in which he walked none and struck out five. The outing dropped Nova's spring ERA from an unsightly 5.40 to a respectable 3.66 and raised his strikeout-to-walk ratio to an unheard of 21-2.
Needless to say, it was a masterful performance from a pitcher who has often shown the ability to deliver one, if not always the focus to do it consistently, even from inning to inning.
New York Yankees
Coming a day after an almost equally masterful performance by Michael Pineda, and three days before the next episode of Tanakapalooza, Nova's outing conjured visions of a starting staff without any soft spots, provided those first two can get their acts together.
"I said from the beginning, we have a really good rotation," Nova said. "The addition of Tanaka and what he's been doing so far, and all the guys behind, with Pineda now coming back, I feel real good about the team that we have right now."
Nova's outing was made somewhat easier by the Yankees' lineup, which staked him to a 3-0 lead on a first-inning RBI single by Carlos Beltran and a two-run double in the fourth by Adonis Garcia, playing because Beltran was the DH and Jacoby Ellsbury was in Tampa nursing a calf injury. Beltran singled in another run in the seventh, and a fifth scored on a Braves' throwing error. Atlanta relievers walked two more runs in in the ninth for a 7-0 final at Champions Stadium.
Derek Jeter, making his final appearance at the Braves' spring training facility, was cheered raucously by the Yankees-fan heavy crowd, and Brian McCann, making his first appearance here since signing with the Yankees after playing his previous nine seasons for Atlanta, got some healthy applause.
But the star of the day was Nova, who used an outstanding curveball along with his mid-90s fastball to limit the Braves to two hits, one a bloop to right that probably should have been caught by Alfonso Soriano, and just two hard-hit balls -- Ryan Doumit's pinch-hit double in the sixth and a long fly by Justin Upton that Brett Gardner caught against the center-field fence in the fourth.
"He pitched a great game," McCann said. "He had some really good action today again on the sinker. He was putting it wherever he wanted it. His curve was a very good weapon. And for me, his changeup is a really good pitch too, the way he works it inside to righties."
"He was getting the ball up early in the game," Girardi said. "But he made a great adjustment, got it down, and then he was really, really good."
Nova said the biggest adjustment has been between his ears and that he is finally starting to figure out the things he needs to do to get better. He related a recent bullpen conversation with Larry Rothschild in which the pitching coach asked Nova what he wanted to work on.
"I just want to keep my ball down," Nova said he told him.
The answer brought a smile to Rothschild's face. "Wow, I remember when I used to ask you and you’d say, 'I don’t know; you tell me,'" Nova said.
To Nova, that answer signified a newly acquired understanding of the requirements of pitching at this level.
"Now I have the confidence to know that I want to work on this or I want to work on that," he said. "I feel good with the way this is going so far.”
So must the Yankees.