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For Ivan Nova, 14 months disappear in seven innings

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NEW YORK -- Ivan Nova couldn't sleep the night before his first big league game in more than a year, and he nearly broke down and cried once it was finally over.

In between, he gave Yankees fans plenty of reason to smile -- and sleep easily, for one night at least -- by delivering one of the best performances in recent memory by a Yankees starter not named Adam Warren, and certainly a much better performance than anyone could have reasonably expected in Wednesday's 10-2 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies at Yankee Stadium.

For 6 2/3 innings, it was as if the previous 14 months had never happened, that Nova had never torn the ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow in his fourth start of 2014, had never gone under Dr. James Andrews' knife and had not had to endure months of worry, uncertainty and rehabilitation.

"It looked like he didn't miss a beat," said Mark Teixeira, who played first base behind Nova.

"I was impressed by how calm he was out there," said John Ryan Murphy, who caught him.

"Today, Nova was a shot in the arm for us," said Alex Rodriguez, who might have opted for a better choice of words but still made his point.

After two straight games in which the weak-hitting Phillies scored 11 runs against the Yankees, the first time against the best starter (Michael Pineda) and the second against a former Cy Young winner (CC Sabathia), a gem from Nova might have seemed an unlikely result.

But from the first inning, when he set the Phillies down in order -- including the dangerous Maikel Franco, who had driven in five runs each of the previous two nights, on an infield popup -- it appeared as if Nova might set the Yankees' world right, at least for the day.

And after being staked to a 5-0 lead after four innings against Phillies ace Cole Hamels, Nova was able to slip into cruise control, never overpowering the hitters but keeping them just off balance enough. He held the Phillies to just three hits, one a routine single that Brett Gardner played into a double by attempting a diving catch, and another an infield hit.

And when he left with two on and two out in the seventh and the Yankees cruising with a 10-0 lead, Nova was treated to a standing ovation from the announced crowd of 45,877, to which he responded with a tip of his cap.

“That was exciting," he said. "I think that’s one of the best things, not only to come back, but to do it in front of the Yankees fans. It’s amazing the way they treated me today, so I’m really happy.”

Considering how long it had been since he last pitched, and how rocky he looked in his final rehab start five days ago for Triple-A Scranton, Nova had reason to be happy. And considering how Pineda and Sabathia -- and Masahiro Tanaka in the final game against the Detroit Tigers before the Phillies came to town -- had pitched in their most recent starts, the Yankees and their fans had reason to be ecstatic.

Although it has been rumored for months that the Yankees might be players in a possible trade for Hamels at the deadline, it was Nova who looked like a prize midseason acquisition. "We’ve missed him in the last 14 months," manager Joe Girardi said. "It was really nice to get him back today."

Nova, an easygoing sort who rarely seems to get rattled, admitted he tossed and turned through a sleepless night on the eve of his return.

"It’s an opportunity that I was waiting for the past 14 months, and it was real exciting," he said. "If somebody told me that he could sleep well before something like this, I would tell him he’s a liar."

But once he left the bullpen and headed for the mound, Nova said the whole routine seemed familiar, even comfortable to him.

“When I was walking to the mound, I didn’t believe it had been 14 months," he said. "I was able to keep calm and try to do my best out there, think positive the whole time. I was ready to go."

Murphy said he could notice signs that Nova was excited in the pregame clubhouse -- "He seemed kind of amped up, like he couldn't wait for the game to start" -- but not once the game started.

"Not a whole lot works him up, but given the circumstances and the year off he had, it would be easy to get a little jumpy and be a little too aggressive out there," Murphy said. "Early in the game, we just wanted to get rolling and get him some outs under his belt and we did that. He got comfortable there and kept his nerves calm and did a great job."

Nova ascribed his struggles in Scranton -- he allowed five earned runs on seven hits in five innings in his last rehab start -- to the low-pressure situation of pitching in a minor league game before a small crowd.

"Sometimes you don’t put the same intensity in the minor leagues. I don’t know why," he said. "Once you’re in the big leagues, you’re in a real competition. You’ve got to give everything to your team. You can really see a difference between a minor league start and a big league start.”

Nova said unlike last Friday, when he felt tired after throwing 84 pitches for Scranton, he could hardly believe he had thrown 92 pitches on Wednesday. "I was still feeling good," he said.

Part of that was adrenaline, no doubt, and part of it the relief that comes with knowing you can still do what you used to be able to do even after a great deal of time has passed.

And part of it has to do with the knowledge that in five days or so, you will get the chance to do it all over again.

"You never know if you’re going to come back, and to be able to get into the seventh inning, it’s amazing,” Nova said. "It has been 14 months, but it's hard to remember. Whatever happened in the past stays in the past. Today, I feel really good.”