Commentary

Yankees' Nova looks lost on mound

The young righty dropped his third straight decision Monday, battered in Detroit

Updated: August 7, 2012, 12:42 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

DETROIT -- Let's get this out of the way right off the bat: Ivan Nova isn't coming out of the New York Yankees' starting rotation.

He's not getting on a bus to Scranton or Trenton or Tampa. His name isn't going to wind up on the disabled list if only to keep his body off the field, where it might do some damage.

The only place Nova is headed is to Canada, where he will in all likelihood be back on the mound to face the power-hitting Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday.

"This kid has won a lot of ballgames for us," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said after Nova lost his third straight decision, a 7-2 shellacking by the Detroit Tigers on Monday night at Comerica Park. "For the most part, the kid's been pretty good for us, but right now he's in a struggle and he's got to fight his way out of it."

[+] EnlargeIvan Nova
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesSince the All-Star break, Ivan Nova suddenly looks like the weak link in the Yankees' rotation.

Meaning, David Phelps is not coming to the rescue, nor is David Cone walking through that door. Barring a waiver deal, the starting staff the Yankees have is the one they are going to battle with, at least from now until the playoffs begin.

"Everybody struggles, man," Derek Jeter said. "I don't care who you are -- pitcher, position player -- everyone goes through times when they struggle. You've got to battle, you've got to keep working and you've got to find your way out of it. I'm sure he will."

Nova's latest loss dropped his record to 10-6, raised his overall ERA to 4.81, and elevated his post-All-Star break ERA to an unsightly 8.36.

And whatever his problem has been since he last won a game, on July 8 in Boston, it seems to be getting worse. Over his past two outings, Nova has allowed 16 earned runs in 10 1/3 innings pitched, a small but disastrous sample over which his ERA is 13.93.

On the bright side, his control has been good.

But his stuff has been terrible.

"His slider didn't have much bite to it," catcher Russell Martin said. "I don't know if it's confidence, it's just executing pitches when you need to. He's not doing that right now."

The clearest example of that came in the fourth inning, when he got ahead of Miguel Cabrera, 0-2, and hung a slider that was hit so far it had to clear Canadian customs before it was allowed to land.

More troubling, however, was the fact that the Tigers' 2-0 lead -- Prince Fielder had also belted a solo homer in the second inning -- evaporated in the top of the fifth when the otherwise-brilliant Justin Verlander's error led to two unearned runs.

Given a new lease on life, Nova immediately began a two-inning meltdown that ended when Girardi yanked him with one out in the sixth, the Tigers having scored four more times on seven hard-hit balls.

It was the kind of performance that was routinely turned in by A.J. Burnett, whom Nova befriended last year in one of the odder couple pairings ever seen in the Yankees' clubhouse.

This year, they seem to have traded places -- Burnett rebounding for 14 wins with the surging Pittsburgh Pirates, and Nova the one who is developing an alarming penchant for unraveling in the middle of games, and even innings.

"I'm not consistent, so my pitches are not the same," Nova said. "I'm leaving too many pitches in the middle. The hitters are too comfortable against me."

Asked if it was any pitch in particular that was giving him problems, Nova said, "Everything. They're hitting everything."

Well, at least he didn't attribute this one to bad luck, as he did five days ago when the Baltimore Orioles lit him up for seven runs in the second inning. This was simply bad pitching.

"I'm not helping my team," he said. "I'm not worried about ERA or anything like that. I just want to help the team to win games. That's the most important thing, help the team to win games, and I'm not doing that."

The scary thing is, when Nova was rolling along on his seemingly unstoppable winning streak -- remember when he won 15 straight decisions between June 10, 2011 and May 2 of this year? -- no one could really explain how he was doing it, a feeling encapsulated in everyone's favorite Nova-ism, "All he does is win."

Now, he doesn't even do that, and it's nearly impossible to find anyone in the Yankees' clubhouse with an explanation.

After implying on Wednesday that Nova had lost some focus against the Orioles, Girardi now says his problems all stem from location. Martin agrees, to an extent, saying there is nothing wrong with Nova that relocating his misplaced slider wouldn't cure.

Nova himself says the answer is simply to "keep working," although he can't really explain what he needs to work on.

"I just got hit," he said. "What more can I say?"

Nova's performance was rendered all the worse by the brilliance of Verlander, who aside from his fielding gaffe -- he dropped what would have been an inning-ending flip from Fielder and then surrendered back-to-back RBI singles to Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano -- was overpowering, striking out a career-high 14, walking only one and throwing a career-high 132 pitches, 96 of which were strikes.

But Nova's performance would have looked bad up against just about anyone. For the second straight start, Nova allowed double-digit hits -- 11 in this one, 10 last time, for a total of 21 in his past 10 1/3 innings -- and there were no cheapies. Cabrera's home run was measured at 454 feet. Four of the five consecutive hits he allowed in the fifth were lasers. So were the three he gave up in the sixth before Girardi finally pulled the plug and brought in Joba Chamberlain.

"I think he's frustrated," Girardi said. "I don't think he likes what's going on. But I see the kid come to work every day and he has a smile on his face. I don't see him moping around. I don't really see a difference in his personality."

Nor are you likely to see any difference in the Yankees' rotation, at least not over the final third of the season.

Once the playoffs start, Nova may follow in his buddy Burnett's footsteps as the odd starter out. But for now, his struggles will be confined to the mound, not his spot in the rotation.

As Girardi said, "He's going to have to battle his way through this."

NOTES: Chamberlain's 1 2/3-inning stint was a marked improvement over his first outing since returning from the DL, on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium. Although he allowed an inherited runner to score on a single by Jhonny Peralta, the first batter he faced, Chamberlain retired five of his next six batters and hit 97 mph on the Comerica Park radar gun. … Girardi and home plate umpire Tony Randazzo exchanged words after the Yankees batted in the third inning, and Girardi had to be pulled away by his bench coach, Tony Pena. "I didn't care for some of the strikes early in the game," Girardi said. "And we were talking back and forth, and he looked at me and stared at me. I don't get it. When the inning's over, walk the other way. It's pretty simple." … For Ichiro Suzuki, one streak ended -- his 12-game hitting streak -- and another began when, after not striking out for his first 50 plate appearances as a Yankee, he fanned in his final three at-bats against Verlander. … Jeter, who came in batting .344 in his career against Verlander, went 2-for-5 to raise that mark to .351. … Verlander's 14 K's were the most against the Yankees since Pedro Martinez whiffed 17 Yanks while pitching for the Red Sox in 1999.

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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