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Friday, June 27, 2014
Surprising Nuno lives to pitch another day

By Wallace Matthews

NEW YORK -- It hasn't been easy being Vidal Nuno for the past couple of weeks, knowing that your job is probably in jeopardy every time you take the mound and no doubt also sensing that with the fans, you are probably the 26th-most popular player on a 25-man roster.

Nor has it been easy being Joe Girardi in the days leading up to Nuno's next turn in the rotation, having to explain why you're still using him without stating the obvious, which is simply that you have no other choice.

And it certainly hasn't been easy being a Yankees fan on the days the club's No. 5 starter was scheduled to pitch, because most of them would have rather seen Vidal Sassoon -- or Gore Vidal or Jose Vidal, for that matter -- on the mound than Vidal Nuno.

But the baseball fates have a strange way of working, and just when it seemed the stage was set for disaster -- a game at Yankee Stadium, the scene of so many Nuno flameouts, and the once-mighty Boston Red Sox in town -- Nuno actually made it easy to watch him work, easy to root for him and impossible to ask -- for the next five days at least -- what exactly he was still doing in the Yankees' starting rotation.

Vidal Nuno
Vidal Nuno came through with 5⅔ scoreless innings against the Red Sox.
As Kelly Johnson said after Nuno turned in 5⅔ scoreless, two-hit innings in what became a 6-0 Yankees victory, "When he’s on, he’s as comfortable and easy to play behind as anybody on this team."

Infielders love a guy who works fast, and Nuno certainly did that tonight.

Managers love a guy who throws strikes, and Nuno did that, as well.

And catchers love a pitcher who rarely, if ever, shakes them off, something that Nuno said he did not do a single time to Brian McCann on any of the 91 pitches he threw.

It all added up to Nuno's best outing of the season and earned him a temporary reprieve from what looked like his imminent removal from the rotation.

Nuno allowed that he "probably" would have been nervous about his job status had he thrown in another clunker to follow his past two outings, which had been simply terrible. He allowed eight runs in three innings at Oakland on June 15, and six days later allowed five more (four earned) in 6⅓ against the Orioles at home. More alarmingly, he had allowed five home runs in those two outings to boost his total to a team-leading 15 in 67⅓ innings.

"Every day has been tough lately, just knowing that my command wasn't there," Nuno said. "It's been a grind. But I've been working on it. Pretty much it's a confidence booster tonight to show that I can still belong here and attack these guys and with my stuff I can win games."

Nuno credited Girardi for keeping the faith, McCann for calling all the pitches and the offense -- which included home runs by Johnson, McCann and Brett Gardner off Red Sox starter Brandon Workman -- for giving him some cushion to work with.

But Girardi credited Nuno, who relies on control and guile, and especially keeping the ball down, to get outs. "He fights," Girardi said. "It’s not a guy that throws 95, it’s not a guy with a wipeout slider. It’s just a guy that goes out and competes and finds a way to get it done. You know that he’s going to throw strikes and you know that he doesn’t get intimidated by a situation. I like that about him. He gives you everything he’s got every time he goes out."

Sometimes, that doesn't seem nearly enough, but facing what looked tonight like a dispirited Red Sox team, Nuno fanned five hitters, including Mike Napoli (twice) and Dustin Pedroia, both looking, allowed just four baserunners (he walked two in addition to the two hits) and allowed only one runner to reach second base.

And he also did something that McCann thought was especially important: "Keeping the ball in the yard. When the ball stays in the yard, he puts up zeros."

As a result, Nuno won his first-ever game at Yankee Stadium in his ninth career home start. The 26-year-old left-hander, who is 3-5 overall with a 4.31 ERA in 16 career starts, admitted his inability to win at home was beginning to affect his psyche.

"It was getting to me a little bit," he said. "But I've been trying to just stay positive, looking at film, trying to find my mechanics, and if you stay positive it's going to come. Pretty much today it came a little bit. I hope it's a step forward."

Truthfully, it might just be a temporary step -- even Girardi, while professing his confidence in Nuno, acknowledged, "We’re in a situation where these are the five guys that we have."

Obviously, not all of them can be Masahiro Tanaka.

But at least for now, one of them will continue to be Vidal Nuno.

In a year of surprises for the Yankees -- most of which have been negative -- that may be among the biggest surprises of all and, for once, a pleasant surprise.