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Sunday, August 4, 2013
Nova number two?

By Wallace Matthews

Ivan Nova
Ivan Nova was great again Saturday -- and got a tiny bit of run support, too.
SAN DIEGO -- He's not going to replace CC Sabathia on the depth chart, but it certainly is a happy coincidence that just as the New York Yankees' former ace is losing his way on the mound, Ivan Nova has suddenly found his.

After Friday night's 7-2 loss, yet another game in which Sabathia had as much trouble finding answers as getting outs, Joe Girardi essentially said that without an effective CC, New York's hopes for a playoff spot were as good as dead.

But after Nova's gem on Saturday -- he held the Padres to just four hits over seven scoreless innings and outlasted his San Diego counterpart, Tyson Ross, who started out retiring the first 13 Yankees he faced -- Sabathia's struggles no longer seemed quite as catastrophic.

"It’s important," Girardi said after Nova, David Robertson and Mariano Rivera worked together to shut out the Padres, 3-0, at Petco Park. "It’s hard to expect one guy to get it done all the time. Sometimes guys are going to struggle and other people are going to pick up the slack. We haven’t scored him a lot of runs, or he’d probably have more wins than he’s got. He’s been really good."

That last part is not just an understatement, it is a misstatement. Before Saturday night, the Yankees hadn't scored any runs for Nova in his previous 16 innings of work -- they had been shut out, 1-0 and 3-0, in Nova's two previous starts -- and could barely get a hit for the first six innings against Ross.

But after working out of trouble in the first, and allowing a leadoff double in the second, Nova settled down to retire 15 straight Padres before Will Venable doubled to lead off the seventh. Nova survived that crisis as well, with a little help from home plate ump Scott Barry, who punched out Nick Hundley on a pitch off the outside corner that ended the inning.

Still, Nova didn't need all that much help. Working with strictly a fastball and curve -- of 85 pitches, Nova did not throw a single changeup or slider -- Nova walked just one hitter and struck out eight. And when Curtis Granderson, in his second game back after missing 60 games with a broken hand, hit a two-run homer off Ross in the seventh, Nova had more runs than he's had in nearly a month -- the Yankees last scored for him in the sixth inning of a game on July 10 -- and all he would need.

"All my swings and misses were with the curveball," Nova (5-4) said. "I had good command of the strike zone and was working both sides of the plate to righties and lefties. I don’t remember the last time I felt the way I feel now. I’m working hard to try to repeat it every time."

With Sabathia struggling and Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes performing erratically from start to start, it is essential for the Yankees that Nova continue to pitch the way he did on Saturday, if only to take some of the burden off Hiroki Kuroda, who has emerged as the true ace of the staff.

"We’ve seen him do it before," Girardi said. "He got in a little rut in the second half last year, he had a hard time getting out of it, but our expectation was he could find it again and get going, and that’s what he’s done. He's been important to us."

That, too, is more than just an understatement. Without an effective Nova on Saturday, the Yankees are looking at a sweep by the lowly Padres on Sunday.

With him, they just might have a glimmer of hope for the rest of the season.