- Mike Mazzeo, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK -- One bad pitch.
That's all it takes to turn a brilliant postseason outing into a dismal one.
New York Yankees rookie right-hander Ivan Nova was reminded of this by Andy Pettitte before making his first-ever postseason "start" after Game 1 of the American League Division Series was suspended by rain.
"One thing he told me was if you get into trouble one inning, any inning, to realize that one pitch can take you out of the game," Nova said Wednesday afternoon, the day before he makes his second career postseason start in what has become a do-or-die, win-or-go-home scenario for the Yankees in Game 5 of the ALDS against the Detroit Tigers. "One pitch can finish that inning, one pitch can take you out of the game, so you have to execute that pitch."
Nova did so more times than not in Game 1, throwing 6 1/3 innings of one-run ball out of the bullpen, as the Yankees took the series opener from Detroit. Asked if his 24-year-old starter has to make any adjustments now that he's facing the Tigers a second time around, manager Joe Girardi responded, "A pitcher is who he is. I don't think you abandon who you are because a team is seeing you again. You go through all that all the time when you are playing in your own division. The bottom line is he has to make his pitches.
"He's got to use them all. He's got to pitch inside. He's got to get a breaking ball going and use both sides of the plate and elevate and throw down in the zone. But I don't think you have to abandon what you did the time before. If you make your pitches, most of the time you're going to get people out."
After surprisingly making the rotation out of spring training, Nova was doing just that. He won eight of his first 12 decisions, but was sent down to the minor leagues in July because Phil Hughes was coming back from the disabled list, and Girardi didn't want to go to a six-man rotation at the time.
The normally laid-back Nova was adamant that he wasn't pleased with the decision, but came back a month later willing to prove that he was a top-of-the-rotation starter, and emerged as a legitimate No. 2 for the Yankees late in the season in large part due to the improvement of his slider.
"His slider was dominant," Girardi said, adding that he first noticed how good the pitch was on June 20 in Cincinnati, when Nova gave up just a run on four hits while striking out seven Reds in eight innings. "And we saw it a couple more times during the course of the season [he struck out a career-high 10 White Sox on Aug. 4 in Chicago] when it was dominant. And it's a pitch that some days he's really got it. Those days are the days when you see the seven, eight, nine strikeouts. Other days he has it and he doesn't have it. But it's a work in progress. My hope is that he's got it [Thursday]."
Nova said the Tigers' hitters were very aggressive in Game 1, but he is ready to make the necessary adjustments to his pitching repertoire in Game 5. Although he called Thursday night's start "the most important game of his life," Nova's demeanor has remained the same -- cool, calm and collected. In fact, he says he hasn't been nervous since being called up and making his third career major league start in Toronto on Aug. 23. That day he threw a pitch up and in on Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista, who began to walk toward the mound.
Asked if he feels any pressure at this point, Nova simply responded, "No."
Like Nova, Pettitte was always ready for the grandest stage, even at a young age. The left-hander made his postseason debut on Oct. 4, 1995, when he was 23. And a year later, he went 2-1 with a 4.78 ERA in five starts for the 1996 World Series championship team, including a sterling 8 1/3 scoreless innings in a pivotal 1-0 victory over the Atlanta Braves in Game 5 of the Fall Classic. Pettitte went on to go 19-10 with a 3.83 ERA in 42 career postseason starts, and wound up with five World Series rings before retiring after the 2010 season.
"He's a really good guy," Nova said of Pettitte. "I talked to him the day before I pitched in my first playoff game. He's helped me a lot. He's a tremendous person. That's the example that you have to take. Who has more success than him in the playoffs? I choose him because that's the guy that can help me in this process. He really did do that last game."
Nova may not have Pettitte's experience, but he'll certainly be taking the 39-year-old's words of wisdom with him to the mound on Thursday night, knowing that it takes only one bad pitch for everything to unravel.
"[Thursday] I got the most important game of my life," Nova said. "I think [Thursday] is the time to do what I've been doing all year. [Thursday] is the time to step up for the team, because that's the game that we'll, you know, we [stay] in the playoffs or we go home."
Mike Mazzeo is a regular contributor to ESPNNewYork.com.
4hAdam Lewis, Special to ESPN.com