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Saturday, October 1, 2011
Updated: October 2, 9:24 AM ET
Ivan Nova steps into the spotlight

By Jerry Crasnick
ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Detroit manager Jim Leyland keeps going to great lengths to point out that rain is rain, and there's no point grumbling about the weather, and it would send the wrong signal to his clubhouse to dwell on the fact that his best pitcher, Justin Verlander, will be a spectator for more of the American League Division Series than anyone expected. Yankees manager Joe Girardi is in basically the same predicament with his best starter, CC Sabathia.

But all the denials and shoulder shrugs in the world can't change the obvious: That Sabathia-Verlander washout Friday night altered the dynamic and the ongoing storyline of this ALDS between New York and Detroit.

At the beginning, it was all about the aces. Now it's more about the second bananas, third wheels and any other mathematically based cliché you want to haul out for the pitchers who line up behind them. It's about Doug Fister, Ivan Nova, Max Scherzer, Freddy Garcia, Rick Porcello and, quite possibly, A.J. Burnett or Phil Hughes. That's a diverse collection of young starters with promise, an aging veteran (Garcia) who keeps on ticking, and a big-ticket guy (Burnett) who keeps finding new and innovative ways to exasperate.

Which pitchers from that group will step forward and have the biggest impact in the postseason? It's tough to know until the games begin. Sometimes supporting actors transition seamlessly into lead roles; think Paul Giamatti in "Sideways.'' And sometimes the results can be hideous, as evidenced by Nick Swardson's performance in "Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star.''

On Saturday night in the Bronx, it finally stopped raining long enough for Nova and Fister to take their turns on the big stage, and things shook out quite neatly in a 9-3 New York victory. When Girardi came to the mound in the ninth inning to pull Nova, there was an appreciative and rousing ovation from a half-empty Yankee Stadium, and the cameras flashed to a sign in the stands that read, "Super Nova.''

And Fister? He gave it everything he had. But in the end he learned that it's a different proposition cutting a swath through AL Central lineups in August and September and trying to navigate the Yankees' stacked lineup two or three times in a game in October.

Robinson Cano was the star of the evening, with six RBIs and the first grand slam by a Yankee in the postseason since Tino Martinez went deep against San Diego in the 1998 World Series. As Yankees catcher Russell Martin observed, "He makes it look so easy -- and it's really not. It doesn't matter if it's against lefties or righties. He gives opposing managers headaches.''

Nevertheless, it's telling that the Yankees, with their $202 million payroll, won the series opener behind a 24-year-old rookie starter with a $432,900 salary and no discernible pulse.

Ivan Nova
Ivan Nova didn't seem fazed by his first playoff appearance. His teammates weren't surprised.

Nova probably won't win the AL Rookie of the Year award, but he deserves to be in the conversation. His 16 wins were the most by a Yankees rookie since Stan Bahnsen won 17 games in 1968. Since 2000, the only rookie pitchers to compile as many or more wins were Sabathia (17 with the 2001 Indians), Verlander (17 with the 2006 Tigers) and Jason Jennings (16 for the 2002 Rockies).

If Nova felt burdened by the responsibility of picking up the baton from Sabathia after Friday's rain-shortened proceedings, he showed no signs of it in the clubhouse Saturday.

"He looked calm all day,'' Martin said. "He just looked like he wanted the ball and wanted to be out there. You didn't really see anything different. I think he just treated it like it was a normal game. He's had success that way, so I don't see why there's any reason to change.

"He's just mentally tough. He doesn't let anything bother him. If he lets one go up and away, it doesn't affect him for the next pitch. He's got a short-term memory, it seems like. He just takes the ball and keeps going.''

When Nova wasn't good, he was lucky. The Tigers had a chance to do some damage when Austin Jackson drew a leadoff walk in the sixth inning. But Cano covered second base on an attempted steal by Jackson, and Magglio Ordonez hit the ball right over the bag for a momentum-shifting double play. Then Nick Swisher made a diving catch on Delmon Young, and just like that, the threat was history.

But for most of the evening, Nova was very good. He lasted 6 1/3 innings and became the first Yankees rookie to win his postseason debut since Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez beat Cleveland in the 1998 ALCS. We all know how El Duque turned out.

"He throws everything the same,'' said Jackson, who once played with Nova as a minor leaguer in the Yankees system. "He throws his fastball the same way he throws his changeup -- with the same arm action. So it's kind of deceiving a little bit. It looks like he's not going to throw that hard, but his ball gets in there on you pretty good.''

Doug Fister
Doug Fister didn't have a good night as Justin Verlander's follow-up act.

For a while, it appeared that Fister would be matching zeroes with Nova. On his first trip through the Yankees' order, Fister relied on his sharp downward plane, his 88-90 mph fastball and enough late movement to make the New York hitters uncomfortable in the box. Martin bluffed a bunt in the fourth inning, and a Fister two-seamer bore in on him with enough force to send him sprawling to the dirt.

But as time wore on, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Cano began to take more authoritative swings against Fister from the left side. And Fister made one big mistake -- throwing a fat 0-2 changeup that Brett Gardner grounded up the middle for a two-run single to give New York a 4-1 lead.

Fister is in line to start Game 5 of this series, if it goes the distance. But regardless of what happens, it's been an uplifting season for him. The Tigers rescued him from a summer sans run support when they acquired him from Seattle by trade in July, and Fister proved to be a revelation down the stretch. He struck out 57 hitters and walked only five in 10 starts as a Tiger, and blew past Scherzer to earn the nod as Leyland's scheduled Game 2 starter.

But the reality is, Fister went 3-1 with a 1.62 ERA in six starts against the Indians, who ranked ninth in the AL in runs and 10th in slugging. He posted a 1.08 ERA in 25 innings of interleague play, but his three starts came against San Diego, Washington and Florida. In other words, he fared well against several teams that aren't quite the New York Yankees.

Now it's on to the next wave of supporting actors. Girardi continues to play coy about his plans for Sabathia, and it's unclear if he'll use his ace Monday against Verlander in Game 3 or pitch him Tuesday in Game 4. Girardi just might be waiting to see how things shake out Sunday: If the Yankees are up 2-0 in the series, he has the latitude to use Burnett or Phil Hughes against Verlander, then send out a rested Sabathia against Porcello in Game 4.

Sunday afternoon, it'll be Scherzer's turn to try to keep the Yankees lineup at bay and get Detroit back in the series. "He's got a big arm,'' Girardi said. But Scherzer can be unpredictable. In April, the Yankees torched him for four home runs in five innings in the Bronx. A month later, Scherzer shut them out for eight innings at Comerica Park.

Scherzer might want to bring his A-game to the park in Game 2. As terrific as Verlander is, the Tigers have to figure out a way to win twice without him in this series if they plan to advance to the next round. That task just got a little more difficult Saturday night.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

Follow Jerry Crasnick on Twitter @jcrasnick.