WASHINGTON -- About an hour before Sunday afternoon's game between the New York Yankees and the Washington Nationals, a couple of beat writers were chatting with Cory Wade, one of the more thoughtful and articulate members of the Yankees' bullpen.
Wade was recounting what he had learned during his brief association with the incomparable Greg Maddux, their paths having crossed as Los Angeles Dodgers in 2008, which was Wade's rookie season and Maddux's last stop in the big leagues.
"One thing Maddux always emphasized to me was the importance of getting quality outs," Wade said. "He talked about that all the time."
In the book of pitching according to Maddux, a 355-game winner, four-time Cy Young Award winner and certain Hall of Famer, a "quality out" was any out obtained on three pitches or fewer.
By Maddux's definition, 15 of Ivan Nova's 23 outs in Sunday's 4-1 Yankees win over the Nationals, completing a weekend of capital punishment for the NL East's best team, were quality outs.
And by anyone's definition, Nova's performance was a quality outing: 7⅔ innings, seven hits, just one run, just one walk and only four strikeouts, two of which were on three pitches. It allowed the Yankees to complete their third consecutive three-game sweep and head home riding a season-high nine-game winning streak.
"We think the ceiling is pretty high for this kid," Joe Girardi said after Nova won his team-leading ninth game of the year against just two losses. "He has that type of stuff. He has two breaking balls, a changeup, a good fastball. He gets a lot of ground balls, he can get double plays and strike people out. When he makes his pitches, he's really good."
Of course, Nova can't paint the way Maddux did, at least not consistently yet, and he's a bit more of a strikeout pitcher, with a fastball that tops out around 94 mph. But on this day, he was neat as a single-malt scotch and every bit as satisfying.
He was all about economy and efficiency, needing just nine pitches to get through the first inning, eight to navigate the fourth and a ridiculous four -- four! -- to set down the heart of the Nationals' order, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche and Mike Morse, in the sixth.
Asked why it took him so long, Nova smiled and said, "One guy didn't want to swing the bat."
That would be LaRoche, who hit Nova's only mistake of the day, a second-inning fastball that tailed back over the plate, into the right-field seats for Washington's only run of the game.
Otherwise, Nova, who has struck out as many as 12 in a game this season, lulled the Nationals to sleep, getting 10 ground ball outs, notably a huge double play to end the fourth inning and Washington's only real threat to make a game of it.
With runners on first and third, one out and the game tied at one, Nova went to 3-1 on second baseman Danny Espinosa.
"Obviously, with that count, you don't want to give him anything over the plate to drive," said Chris Stewart, who caught Nova in place of Russell Martin after Saturday's 14-inning game. "So, I went out there and told him, 'If you're going to miss, miss off the plate and we'll go after the next guy.' He threw the ball exactly where I wanted him to, slightly off the plate and down."
Espinosa whacked it hard and one hop slightly to the right of Robby Cano, who picked it clean and flipped to Derek Jeter to start an easy DP.
"Much better than a strikeout," Nova said. "I was trying to do that."
Maddux couldn't have done it any better. It was Nova's fifth straight win, but in truth, despite his knack for picking up W's -- he had won 15 straight decisions before losing to the Orioles on May 2 -- Nova has often benefited from superior run support from his high-scoring offense. As recently as May 30, his ERA was an unsightly 5.60 to go along with a 6-2 record.
But since working eight innings of one run ball against the Tampa Bay Rays on June 6, Nova has been scary good. Over his past three starts, he has allowed just two earned runs in 22⅔ innings (for an 0.79 ERA), and his overall ERA has come down to a more than respectable 4.32.
Nova attributes his recent turnaround to improved focus on the mound, a theory Stewart seconded.
"Sometimes, he gets in the game and he's a little erratic," Stewart said. "I think he tries to overthrow at times. But he was just focusing on the glove today, just like he does in his bullpens, and he was able to execute pitches. It's just a matter of getting him to calm down."
Girardi, however, thinks it has as much to do with Nova suddenly learning to harness his slider to go along with his curveball and above-average fastball.
"You're going to have hitters that hit curveballs better than sliders and vice versa," Girardi said. "When you have both pitches, you have more ways to get people out. I think that's really important."
Nova, who has been the beneficiary of a team-high 6.37 runs per game this season, got all the runs he needed on Sunday when Curtis Granderson hit his 21st homer of the year off starter Edwin Jackson leading off the fifth inning. The Yankees got another solo home run by Robinson Cano (No. 12) in the seventh, and added a fourth run on a passed ball in the same inning.
For one more day, it relegated the season's most ubiquitous, and misunderstood stat, to the heap of meaningless numbers: The Yankees were 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position, but won the game easily.
That, of course, was due to the pitching of Nova.
"We're still not happy about that," Mark Teixeira, who drove in the first run with a sacrifice fly, said of the daily RISP failure. "But our pitchers have picked us up all year. If it's not for them being so good, we're not in first place right now."
Quality outs = quality pitching = nine-game winning streak.
No doubt, Greg Maddux would approve.
Postgame notes: The three consecutive series sweeps marked the first time the Yankees have done that since 1998, when over a span from June 30 to July 12, they swept the Phillies in three games, the Orioles in three games and the Rays in four games. That team ended up doing rather well. Nick Swisher, out with a deep thigh bruise suffered in Saturday's game, said he felt "much better" after a day of therapy with team trainer Steve Donohue. He still does not know if he will be available for Monday night's game against the Braves at home. Martin sat out after catching all 14 innings on Saturday plus fouling a ball off his right foot, but said he will be OK to go Monday night, meaning he might catch CC Sabathia for the first time since April 12. Rafael Soriano pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for his 13th save in 14 opportunities since assuming the closer's job.