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Ivan Nova wins a round over CC Sabathia in fight for fifth spot

FT. MYERS, Fla. -- Ivan Nova added to his case to be the New York Yankees' fifth starter by putting up four solid innings against the Red Sox on Tuesday night at JetBlue Park.

"Awesome," Nova said when asked how he thought the night went.

Nova's assessment was spot on. He pitched very well against a very representative lineup for the Sox, something that Nova wasn't expecting.

When Nova saw the names of Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Xander Bogaerts in the lineup, among others, before the first pitch, he just laughed. Then he got serious on the mound.

"That's his best outing so far," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said after Nova allowed just a run on three hits while striking out four and walking one in his four innings.

Prior to Nova's outing, Girardi made it clear that he is counting results from here on out in the race between Nova and CC Sabathia for the fifth starter's spot.

"This, now, becomes an important time," Girardi said.

Nova did not start well, but quickly recovered. He pitched out of trouble in the first inning by forcing Ortiz to bounce into a run-scoring double play. Preceding Ortiz, Rusney Castillo and Pedroia both singled to begin the inning.

From there, Nova only allowed a walk and a hit over his final 3 1/3 innings. He looked rather sharp, which he will need to continue if he is going win the fifth starter spot.

Girardi probably would prefer to go with Sabathia, given his ace pedigree and his $25-million salary. Girardi said dollars will not have any impact on the decision, but it is hard to imagine the Yankees wouldn't rather have Sabathia just win the job instead of becoming the highest-paid long reliever in baseball history. Sabathia could not make it out of the second inning in his start Sunday.

Sabathia owns the far superior resume, but Nova has motivation, as he is a free agent after the season. Girardi, for one, believes that free agency works as an incentive.

Nova struggled in his return from Tommy John surgery in 2015, which is not unusual. It is common for pitchers to have trouble the first season after returning from elbow surgery. Nova, who was 6-11 with a 5.07 ERA last season, did not buck common wisdom.

"Ups and downs," Girardi said when asked to describe Nova's year. "There were some inconsistencies. A lot of people believe it was just from what he was coming back from. Your body just doesn't recover the same. There were days his curveball was sharper than others. He hadn't pitched for 14 months. I expect to see a much different Ivan Nova (this season)."

At just 29, Nova seems like a prime candidate to have a bounce-back season.

"I see his arm strength more consistent, and it is still spring training," Girardi said.

It sure looked that way against the Red Sox.