Phil Hughes takes Ivan Nova's spot

NEW YORK -- After missing two-and-a-half months, Phil Hughes is on the verge of returning to the New York Yankees rotation -- and Ivan Nova is the odd man out.

The Yankees optioned Nova to Triple-A Scranton before Sunday afternoon's 3-2, 10-inning loss against the New York Mets. Nova, 24, is 8-4 with a 4.12 ERA. The Yankees will keep him stretched out as a starter at Triple-A, thinking that if one of their remaining starters is hurt or ineffective, Nova will get the call.

"Nova has come a long ways," manager Joe Girardi said. "This is a chance for him to keep it going. The kid will be back at some point. We know that. We want him to continue to work on his slider and his changeup and develop, and this is the best way we feel he can do that."

Nova always seemed like the most likely candidate to lose his spot in the rotation. CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett are the team's top two starters, while Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia have excelled after joining the team on minor league contracts.

"It's not an easy thing," said Girardi, who never contemplated putting Nova in the bullpen because he's viewed by the organization long term as a starter. "He's got eight wins, which is tied for second on the staff. That's really good. But when I told him, he handled it like a man and a professional, and I think he'll go about about it the right way, I really do."

Added general manager Brian Cashman: "(Nova is) our fifth starter. Now we're getting an 18-game winner (and) All-Star back in the rotation so you do what you have to do, you move you're fifth starter out."

The Yankees are hoping that Hughes can regain the form that made him an All-Star last year. He is 0-1 with a 13.94 ERA in three starts.

"I feel like I'm ready to go and I can finally go out there and throw like I can," said Hughes, who will start on Wednesday in Cleveland against the Indians. "I'm really excited. I'm not gonna be on my normal rest, but it's better off pitching (in the big leagues) and waiting than making another rehab start."

On June 30, Hughes threw 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball during an 88-pitch rehab outing for Double-A Trenton, so he will have to wait two extra days instead of being on regular rest. The 25-year-old has been on the disabled list since April 15 with right arm inflammation.

His velocity was down in those starts -- he averaged just 89.3 mph on his fastball, according to FanGraphs.com -- which prompted the Yankees to DL him. His fastball was clocked between 92-94 mph on Wednesday afternoon, so it's clear the Yankees believe he's ready to return to the rotation.

The Yankees had said Nova wasn't pitching for his job on Friday night, prior to his five-inning, one-run outing against the Mets, which allowed him to pick up his eighth win of the season.

"It was the choice that probably made the most sense," Girardi said. "If you put (Nova) in the 'pen, he's not gonna be able to develop pitches. You don't know when you're gonna get him in the game and he might only throw two innings.

"We consider him a starter as time moves forward. He's got four pitches and he needs to keep developing them."

Andrew Marchand covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. Mike Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com. Information from ESPNNewYork.com's Ian Begley was used in this report.