Commentary

Never-nervous Nova reigns in Game 1

Yankees rookie rattles Tigers, eliminates fear over Friday fiasco's effect on ALDS

Updated: October 2, 2011, 10:04 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- On Friday night, Mother Nature wiped out what was shaping up as CC Sabathia's best night in a month.

On Saturday, the New York Yankees wiped out Mother Nature's impact on the ALDS.

Whatever advantage the Detroit Tigers may have gained with the rainstorm that halted Game 1 after an inning and a half, the Yankees took back one day and seven innings later with a convincing 9-3 victory.

Now, having Sabathia pitch just once rather than twice in a five-game series doesn't seem so dire.

[+] EnlargeIvan Nova
Chris Trotman/Getty ImagesIvan Nova earned the applause he received from the Yankee Stadium faithful on Saturday night.

Neither does having to play four straight games, with virtually every vital piece in the Yankees' bullpen sitting unused on the shelf for another night.

Even the prospect of A.J. Burnett having to pitch one of these games no longer seems like the stuff of nightmares.

And just like that, Justin Verlander went from a menace to a minor annoyance.

And if this thing goes down to a deciding fifth game back here at the Stadium Thursday, well, it seems as if rookie Ivan Nova will have matters well under control.

The weather didn't clear up all that much on Saturday -- a heavy downpour kept the infield covered until about a half-hour before the resumption of a game delayed by rain for 23 hours and 29 minutes -- but the forecast became decidedly sunnier for the Yankees' prospects to advance to the ALCS.

Nova pitched brilliantly, Robinson Cano hit like the MVP candidate he should be, and the Yankees made the plays that the Detroit Tigers could not, the plays that make the difference between a long postseason run and an early exit.

There was Derek Jeter's lightning-quick release on a fifth-inning relay throw from short center field that cut down Alex Avila at the plate, and Nick Swisher's diving, sliding catch on Delmon Young's liner to medium right that ended the sixth at a time when the game was still up for grabs.

The play at the plate was a huge out at a time when the game was still tied, and it was perfectly executed by Curtis Granderson, who hit Jeter; by Jeter, who fired a high strike to Russell Martin; and by Martin, who kept his concentration on the baseball as Avila bore down on him.

"The only way I wasn't holding on to that ball," Martin said. "Is if I was knocked out. And maybe even if I was, I might have still held on to it."

And Jorge Posada's second-inning gaffe aside, the Yankees owned the basepaths.

There were Posada and Mark Teixeira going on Martin's sixth-inning groundout, avoiding a double play, and there was Brett Gardner breaking for second and clearing a hole for Jeter's single, on what otherwise would have been a routine inning-ending ground out later in the same inning.

Both those plays ensured the inning would live long enough for Cano to belt one into the second deck in right, the grand slam that broke the Tigers' back.

"I think he's learned how to hit in big situations," Joe Girardi said of Cano. "He's not a guy who goes up there just trying to get a hit. He's trying to do damage."

Cano would finish the night with six RBIs, which tied the Yankees' record for a single postseason game. And he would have owned the record had his fifth-inning drive to left that bounced off the rim of the wall carried six inches further or bounced back into the seats instead of forward onto the field, and into play.

And Nova, who was supposed to pitch his own game on this night, not simply pick up the baton for Sabathia after Friday night's false start, took this one from the top of the third nearly to the finish line, 6 1/3 innings of four-hit ball, one of them an infield hit that glanced off his buttocks in the ninth inning.

Anyone who worried whether the 24-year-old would be able to handle the pressure of postseason baseball might just as well stop now. Nova, who might be Burnett's closest friend off the field, is the anti-A.J. on the mound.

"He's just mentally tough," Martin said. "He doesn't let anything bother him out there. He just takes the ball and keeps going."

Working in cold weather that caused him to have trouble gripping the baseball, particularly on his changeup, Nova walked four batters but with the help of his defense, kept the Tigers off the board through the eighth inning. When he tired in the ninth and loaded the bases on two singles and a walk, he left to a standing ovation from what was left of the record crowd of 50,940.

The only downer of the night was the performance of Luis Ayala, who allowed two of his inherited runners to score and forced Girardi to summon Mariano Rivera to get the final out of the game.

But with Rivera needing just three pitches to fan Wilson Betemit to end the game, and neither Rafael Soriano nor David Robertson having to work, the Yankees have a virtually intact bullpen for Freddy Garcia's Game 2 start Sunday afternoon.

For that, they can thank Nova, who treated his first postseason start as if it was his 50th. Asked if he was nervous, Nova said, "No, no. I was really excited. My first postseason start. I could not believe it. After the first inning, everything came back normal. I slowed down everything."

Nova, of course, has been a different, more effective pitcher since adding a slider to his repertoire, a pitch he had little faith in early in the season but worked on in the minors when the Yankees sent him down in July to make room for the return of Phil Hughes from the disabled list.

But now, the rest of the rotation, minus Sabathia, needs to make way for Nova, who is indisputably the No. 2 starter on the staff.

Even Martin, who on Friday said he thought Nova might have some jitters in his first playoff start, was impressed by his poise. "I was wrong," he said. "He wasn't nervous at all."

By now, no one should be surprised by what Ivan Nova does on the mound.

Or what the Yankees do once the calendar turns to October, no matter what kind of sucker punches Mother Nature decides to throw at them.

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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