- Wallace Matthews, ESPNNewYork.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- If the New York Yankees were truly a meritocracy, then Alex Rodriguez would no longer be their cleanup hitter, A.J. Burnett would no longer be in the starting rotation, and Ivan Nova would never have to worry about riding a bus with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees ever again.
On Sunday at Target Field, however, A-Rod was back in his customary lineup spot. And although Nova was pitching another gem, there is still no guarantee that, when it comes time to fill out the Yankees' postseason pitching rotation, he will be in or Burnett will be out.
The question of where A-Rod should or will bat needn't be settled or even discussed right away. In his absence, the Yankees did just fine rotating Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano in and out of the cleanup spot, and it will take more than one game back to determine where Rodriguez truly fits.
But there is no better time than now to make the call on Nova versus Burnett.
Right now, the Yankees have six pitchers for five spots. CC Sabathia, of course, is the ace. Bartolo Colon has pitched well enough to stick around as long as his remarkable but rotund body holds up. Phil Hughes has looked very good lately, and despite his brief trip to Scranton this week, Freddy Garcia will return this weekend and has shown no reason to jeopardize his spot.
Which brings us to Burnett, the $82.5 million man who is still owed two years and $33 million on his contract, and Nova, to whom the Yankees owe virtually nothing other than a deep debt of gratitude.
On Saturday night, Burnett had another horrendous outing, being charged with seven earned runs before getting six outs and cursing at someone -- either his manager or home plate umpire D.J. Reyburn, but certainly not at himself -- as he stalked off the field to the mock cheers of the Minnesota crowd.
And on Sunday afternoon, there was Nova, 24 years old but poised beyond his years, shutting the Twins down for seven scoreless innings on five hits and working out of the kind of back-to-back jams that would make Burnett kick out the clubhouse windows.
Nova got into the first mess when Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher crossed signals in the outfield, allowing a routine fly ball to drop for a fluke double, giving the Twins runners at second and third with none out in the bottom of the fifth inning in a scoreless game.
In the dugout, Joe Girardi was hoping to get out of it with no more than one run. In center field, Granderson, who felt responsible for the situation in the first place, was thinking the same thing.
He did not throw a tantrum, glare at his outfielders, blame the umpires, or begin walking out of the ballpark. He simply went back to work and, nine pitches later, was on his way back to the dugout not in shame or failure, but in triumph. First, he struck out Rene Tosoni on three pitches. Then, he struck out Matt Tolbert on five pitches. And on the first pitch he saw, Drew Butera tapped one to Mark Teixeira for the final out.
"That game to me was won in the fifth inning when we messed up the fly ball and he gets out of the inning," Girardi said. "That was the ballgame right there."
The Yankees scored a run in the next inning and two more in the seventh on back-to-back home runs, an inside-the-park job by Granderson and a more customary over-the-wall blast by Teixeira, and the game -- and series -- were history.
Nova worked out of another jam in the sixth, striking out Jim (600 home runs) Thome with two on after issuing consecutive walks, and David Robertson loaded the bases for his own amusement in the eighth before retiring Danny Valencia on a fly ball to fight, and that was that.
The 3-0 win gave the Yankees three out of four games here, five out of seven on the road trip, and kept the Yankees a half-game ahead of the Boston Red Sox in the AL East.
But was it good enough to keep Nova in the rotation? Or at least, to crowd Burnett out?
"I'm not worried about that, and I'm not going to talk about that because it doesn't make any sense," Girardi said before the game when asked about his likely playoff rotation. "A, we're not in the playoffs yet and B, the way a guy's throwing the ball now may be totally different than it is the end of September. So it doesn't make a lot of sense."
Girardi also pointed out the Yankees need to stay with a six-man rotation at least through next Saturday, when they need an extra starter to get them through a day/night doubleheader in Baltimore.
Both are fair points, but it makes you wonder what the manager could possibly see in Burnett that makes him think he will be a better pitcher in September than he is now, when the numbers tell you he is even worse in 2011 than he was in 2010.
And it also makes you wonder how much more Nova has to do to convince the people deciding his fate that he is for real, and here to stay.
Nova's victory on Sunday was his 13th of the season, the most by a Yankees rookie since Ron Davis won 14 games, all in relief, in 1979, and the most by a Yankees rookie starter since Doc Medich went 14-9 in 1973.
And this in spite of being banished to Triple-A for nearly the entire month of July to make room for the return of Phil Hughes, who burnished his own credentials for a permanent rotation spot with a brilliant performance (7-2/3IP, 2H, 1R) on Friday night.
Nova went to Scranton and came back with an out pitch, a slider he had cultivated in spring training, forgot about during the regular season, and used to great effect on Sunday, getting swinging strikeouts on Tosoni, Tolbert and Thome in the key moments of the game.
"I feel really comfortable with my slider now," Nova (13-4, 3.97) said. "It's a pitch I can throw to left-handed batters. In the past, when something like that happened to me, I'd get out of control in that situation. But now, I stay focused. I throw it when I know I need a strikeout, not a ground ball or a fly ball."
But the slider isn't the only thing that sets Nova apart. There's also his attitude. While an unwarranted trip to the minors might have caused resentment or discouragement in other young pitchers, it seems to have had the opposite effect on Nova.
Now, he says, he pitches every game as if his spot on the roster depends upon it.
"That worked for me before," he said. "You gotta keep thinking that you're fighting for a spot in the rotation and that way you're gonna have a good result. I came a long way from my hometown [San Cristobal in the Dominican Republic] to be here and now that I got the opportunity to be here I don't want to lose it."
He shouldn't have to. Nor should he even have to worry about it.
If the Yankees' starting rotation is being decided on merit alone, then Ivan Nova's spot should be secure.
By this time next week, we should know exactly how those job assignments are given out.
Granderson's inside-the-park home run, a blast that hit about a foot below the top of the 30-foot wall in right-center field, was the third of his career. He had hit two as a Detroit Tiger, one against the Angels in Anaheim and the other against the Yankees at Comerica Park in 2007. Granderson recalled that Hideki Matsui, playing left-field for the Yankees, thought his shot down the line would kick off the wall. Instead, it hugged the line and eluded the heavy-footed Matsui, allowing Granderson to circle the bases easily. This one hit the wall so hard it caromed past centerfielder Ben Revere, and Granderson, who said he thought the ball would hit the wall and was thinking triple all the way, never hesitated once he saw third-base coach Rob Thomson waving him home as he rounded second. It was Granderson's 35th home run of the season and left him one behind major league leader Jose Bautista. ... Robinson Cano doubled in the sixth, alertly went to third on Russell Martin's fly out to deep left, and scored the Yankees first run of the game on Teixeira's sacrifice fly. ... A-Rod went 0-for-5, including an inning-ending pop out with the bases loaded, but made a terrific running barehanded play on Revere's bunt attempt in the sixth. ... Derek Jeter's infield hit leading off the game gave him 3,050 for his career and left him three behind Rod Carew for 22nd on the all-time list. ... Mariano Rivera threw a clean ninth for his 33rd save of the year, leaving him eight short of 600 for his career and nine short of the all-time record of 601 by Trevor Hoffman. ... Yankees have a day off Monday and begin a brief three-game homestand Tuesday night against the Oakland Athletics. Bartolo Colon (8-7, 3.54) faces RHP Brandon McCarthy (6-6, 5.74) in the opener.
If Yanks' decisions are based on merit, then Ivan Nova's spot should be secure.