Commentary

Nova gives Joe something to sleep on

Righty makes Girardi's job tougher -- but he'll likely make his next start in Scranton

Updated: August 5, 2011, 10:26 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

CHICAGO -- Ivan Nova did everything the New York Yankees asked of him on Thursday night and more than they possibly could have expected.

Now the big question is, what more will they ask of him on Friday morning?

The answer may not be as simple as it appears.

Pitching ostensibly for a continuing spot on the Yankees' roster and a permanent spot in their starting rotation, Nova turned in one of the finest performances by a Yankee starter this season.

Knowing that he probably had to win or walk, Nova dominated the Chicago White Sox, pitching into the eighth inning, allowing just six hits and one run, striking out a career-high 10 and making that tough decision Yankees manager Joe Girardi said he so wanted to have to make a reality.

[+] EnlargeJoe Girardi
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhJoe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild liked what they saw on Thursday night from young Ivan Nova, who struck out a career-high 10 batters.

He earned his 10th win of the season in the Yankees' 7-2 victory over the ChiSox, the win that completed a four-game sweep, extended the Yankees' winning streak to seven in a row, and sends them into this weekend's showdown at Fenway in a flat-footed tie with their AL East arch rivals the Boston Red Sox.

Those 10 wins are more than A.J. Burnett or Bartolo Colon have, and their rotation spots are safe. They are more -- eight more -- than Phil Hughes has, and Hughes is already penciled in to start again Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium against the Los Angeles Angels. They are as many as Freddy Garcia has, and he has the showcase spot this weekend, pitching the nationally televised Sunday night game on ESPN.

There must be a spot on this Yankee team for Ivan Nova. Right?

Maybe.

On merit, Nova certainly belongs. Based on his performance against the White Sox, one both the manager and the catcher agreed was the best they'd ever seen from him, he has a stronger claim than at least two other pitchers whose spots are secure.

But by the numbers, he may not fit, at least not this weekend, when he wasn't going to pitch anyway.

After the game ended, Joe Girardi said he still did not know what he was going to do about the Nova Conundrum, that he would discuss it with GM Brian Cashman on Thursday night, think about it on the flight to Boston, and talk about it with Cash some more Friday morning.

And even then, he still may not know what to do.

"Now I have to scratch my head a little more, don't I?" Girardi said. "We'll discuss it tonight and tomorrow and decide what we're going to do. We don't necessarily have to make a move."

Oh, yes they do. And that's where Nova may lose out, at least for the immediate future.

Yankees-Red Sox games, and especially those at Fenway, are notoriously long and brutal, and no lead is ever safe, even on nights when A.J. is not pitching.

And for the past couple of weeks, since Ramiro Pena went down with appendicitis and the Yankees sent Brandon Laird back to the farm to make room for the return of Eric Chavez, the Yankees have been operating with a short bench.

On any given night, their reserve corps has consisted of three players: Andruw Jones, Eduardo Nunez and Francisco Cervelli. They were able to get away with it against the likes of the Mariners, the Orioles and now the White Sox.

But they probably can't risk it against the Red Sox.

The odds are that sometime on Friday, the announcement will be made that Ivan Nova has been optioned back to Scranton, and some reserve, probably Chris Dickerson, has been recalled.

It may not seem fair, but for this weekend at least, it is perfectly logical. Nova was not going to pitch this weekend anyway. His next scheduled turn is on Tuesday, but in fact, he probably would not get a chance to start again for the Yankees until next Friday at the earliest.

So if the Yankees choose to send him down, the reasons will be as follows: (A) they need another bench player for the weekend in Boston; (B) Nova needs to continue to pitch regularly; hence (C), he will pitch on his regular turn for Scranton on Tuesday and return in time to pitch against Tampa Bay next weekend in the Bronx.

Whatever the Yankees' final decision turns out to be, Nova seems prepared for it.

When asked what he thought would be next for him, this is what he said: "I pitch again in five days. Doesn't matter if it's here or if it isn't. That's what I got in my mind now. I'm pitching in five days and I got four days to get ready for it."

At 24, Nova is a young man of uncommon poise and maturity, qualities he demonstrated in abundance both on the field and in the clubhouse.

Knowing he had little to no margin for error, he went out and pitched the game of his young big-league life.

And then, understanding that even that may not have been good enough to keep him here, he said all the right things in the clubhouse afterward. And seemed to really mean them.

"I'm not worried about what is ahead of me," Nova said. "I'm just worrying about doing my job. When you have days like today, I'm not gonna lie, it's hard to think that you gotta go down. But I don't want to be crying, I'm trying to keep my mind clear. The most important thing is to pitch my game. I always say if you pitch a good game, you still have a chance to stay in the rotation."

Nova pitched not a good game, but a great one, allowing just six singles, two of them infield hits, and employing a sharp slider on which he got most of his strikeouts. Only in the third inning, when the ChiSox cobbled together a run on two singles and a sacrifice fly, did he allow a runner to reach second base.

Russell Martin, his catcher, described Nova's stuff as "electric," and called his slider "probably the sharpest pitch I've seen from him all year."

Most importantly, Martin praised Nova's poise, which was what attracted the Yankees to him last season when he came up as an emergency starter when Andy Pettitte went down with a groin injury.

That same poise became a question mark when Nova began to show signs of tiring, either physically or mentally, after five innings of a game, and some even questioned his confidence when, time and again, he failed to hold leads or put teams away.

But now, those questions seem not only passÚ, but silly.

"Nova was impressive," Mark Teixeira said. "He's aggressive. I love the way he goes after hitters. It was tough to hit him tonight."

"Today was the best I've seen him, absolutely," Martin said. "I just like his attitude out there. He's focused, he's competitive and he's in the game on every pitch right now. I think he's just focusing on getting guys out and he's not worrying about anything else. He's keeping it simple and that's the best way to put it."

But by keeping it simple, Nova has made things very complicated for the Yankees.

"It was tough to send him down the first time," Girardi admitted. "Right now, I don't know what we're going to do about it."

Whatever the Yankees decide, Nova will be back, and eventually to stay. He earned that right Thursday night, even if he has to wait another week to enjoy it.

NOTES: The Yankees needed 7-1/3 innings to get their first and only hit off Phil Humber when the White Sox came to New York in April, but Thursday, they belted him around in the second inning. Robinson Cano lined a rare opposite-field homer, his 18th, just inside the left-field foul pole and Chavez just missed a homer with a drive off the right-field wall. But Humber settled in and didn't allow another run until the sixth, when the Yankees manufactured a run on Brett Gardner's leadoff double, a sacrifice bunt by Derek Jeter, and a groundout by Curtis Granderson. They added two more in the seventh on an RBI single by Jorge Posada and a sac fly by Martin. Then, in the ninth, Martin crushed "the longest home run I can remember hitting" with two men on off ex-Yankee Brian Bruney to complete the scoring. Hector Noesi, mopping up in the ninth, surrendered a two-out homer to Adam Dunn, who had had a horrendous series and is batting just .167. ... Cano also homered Wednesday, after having just one home run in his first 20 games after winning the Home Run Derby on All-Star week. He hit .467 (7-for-15) with two homers and seven RBIs in the series. ... In the raucous Yankee postgame clubhouse, some joker cranked Nick Swisher's version of "Lean on Me" from his album "Believe." Reggie Jackson, who before the game had told Swisher he wouldn't pay a dollar to buy it, was won over. "This is pretty good," he said. He said he still wouldn't buy it, however. .... Pitching matchups for the Boston series: Bartolo Colon (8-6, 3.30) vs. LHP Jon Lester (11-4, 3.17)Friday night; CC Sabathia (16-5, 2.55) vs. RHP John Lackey (9-8, 6.23) Saturday afternoon and Freddy Garcia (10-7, 3.22) vs. RHP Josh Beckett (9-4, 2.20) Sunday night.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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