Commentary

Nova looks like a no-go for October

Ivan the Terrible rears his ugly head again in Yanks' lifeless loss in Toronto

Updated: September 28, 2012, 1:07 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TORONTO -- Last October, when the New York Yankees needed one more win to extend their season another round, they asked Ivan Nova to get it.

This October, they may not even invite him along for the ride.

Thursday night, facing yet another golden opportunity to create some separation between themselves and the Baltimore Orioles, the Yankees turned to Nova.

And as he had in the fifth game of the 2011 American League Division Series against the Detroit Tigers, Nova turned to stone.

[+] EnlargeIvan Nova
Abelimages/Getty ImagesIvan Nova broke Andy Hawkins' not quite hallowed Yankees record for most extra-base hits allowed in a season.

His frustrating, mistake-riddled performance, in which he allowed four runs and failed to last five innings, not only sliced the Yankees' margin over the idle Orioles in the AL East back to a single game, it also raised doubts about the value, if any, of including Nova on their postseason roster, let alone in the starting rotation.

"I can't think about that now," manager Joe Girardi said after the Yankees had lost 6-0 to the Blue Jays and Brandon Morrow. "I wish I could worry about that now but I can't. I've got to worry about tomorrow's game, and then we'll go from there."

The manager may have bigger fish to fry but that doesn't stop us from questioning whether Nova finally succeeded in not only pitching himself out of the playoff rotation, but right off the postseason roster.

Despite his supportive words, Girardi clearly doesn't trust him anymore in a big game -- he pulled him with one out in the third five days ago against the Oakland Athletics, and yanked him Thursday with two out in the fourth -- and his facial expressions tell you something his statements try to cover up.

Nova's maddening inconsistency is driving him bananas.

"He was big for us at the beginning of the year," Girardi said. "He ended up going on the DL, and after he had that great start against Tampa, we were hoping he could get on a roll. He hasn't."

Now, he has one start left this season, Tuesday against the Boston Red Sox in a game that in a perfect world really should be meaningless to everyone but him. And yet, there is every indication that it will wind up being important, and no guarantee that Nova will get the ball again.

"We'll see. We'll see," a tight-lipped Girardi said. "That's five days away. I have to worry about tomorrow."

There were several factors that made Nova's night so frustrating. For one thing, he had good stuff. Russell Martin thought Nova had his best curveball of the year, and at one stretch he used the pitch to strike out three consecutive Blue Jays over the second and third innings.

And for another, these were the Blue Jays, the fighting-for-last-place Blue Jays, for cryin' out loud, the same squad that had been victimized the night before by the Orioles -- there's that word again -- who hit a franchise record seven home runs in a 12-2 trouncing Wednesday in Baltimore.

And yet, as he often does, Nova created his own problems by walking Anthony Gose, a rookie hitting .221 in the nine-hole, and then left a fastball over the plate to leadoff hitter Brett Lawrie, who crushed it into the Yankees' bullpen to give the Jays a 2-0 lead.

Nova had an uneventful fourth but then imploded in the fifth, allowing a single to Gose, a bunt single to Colby Rasmus, and a ringing two-run double by Edwin Encarnacion on a slider he left up over the plate.

"I never want him to throw that slider for a strike, period," said a clearly frustrated Martin. "That should be a chase pitch. Even if he's behind in the count, he's better off throwing that pitch in the dirt than anywhere over the plate. It's a minor adjustment, but he has to make it."

Nova never got the chance to make any kind of adjustment, because after he got Yunel Escobar to ground out for the second out of the inning, Girardi pulled him in favor of Clay Rapada.

Nova's assessment of his night? "Not good. Not good. I'm not pitching the way I want. I'm not getting the results that I want. That's not good."

But alarmingly, he doesn't seem to have the slightest idea why.

"I think I'm working on everything possible to pitch good, to throw strikes, to get people out," he said. "Unfortunately, this year has been really bad for me, but I'm not quitting. I gotta keep fighting."

Nova's record has been deceptive all season. After a poor spring, he started out 3-0, to extend a streak of 15 straight wins he had begun the previous June. At one point in the season, he was 9-2, but his ERA languished above 5.00 into June, and he allowed an alarming number of home runs and extra-base hits.

Nova suffered through an especially bad July and August, and then spent nearly a month on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation. When he returned on Sept. 15, he threw a good outing at the Tampa Bay Rays -- six innings of four-hit, two-run ball -- but reverted five days later against the A's, and repeated that performance Thursday against the Blue Jays.

"He's had a couple of injuries this year, you know?" Nick Swisher said, in a feeble attempt at defending Nova. "Some people might say he's not the same guy as he was last year. Then again, man, you go and take the mound -- everybody in this locker room knows what's at stake. That's it, man. We've just got to play better."

Lawrie's home run was the 28th Nova had allowed in 28 starts this season, and Encarnacion's double was the 87th extra-base hit he had surrendered, which is not only tops in the majors this season but also set a new record for a Yankees pitcher, eclipsing the previous mark established by Andy Hawkins in 1989.

Meanwhile, the Yankees were doing nothing against Morrow, who often looks like a Cy Young candidate against them. They managed just five hits all night and stranded runners in scoring position in the second, seventh and ninth innings, when they got the first two runners on against reliever Darren Oliver but saw their next three hitters, Swisher, Curtis Granderson and Martin, fly out harmlessly to end the game.

Said Martin: "You can't win any games if you don't score any runs."

You also can't win many if you don't prevent any runs, especially in playoff baseball, and off this performance it's tough to imagine Nova cracking the Yankees' starting rotation, and even tougher to imagine Girardi finding a spot for him on the roster anywhere else.

Certainly, the four starting spots will belong to CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes, and the role of long reliever will probably go to David Phelps.

That leaves Nova, who picked up Sabathia, and the win, in Game 1 of last year's ALDS after it was suspended by rain, and who four games later was asked to pitch the Yankees deeper into October, probably out in the cold.

"Especially right now, the position that we're in, I don't feel good about it," he said. "I'm going to keep working like I'm going to start next time. I'm confident, I'll still work and hopefully I can get the next one and then be in the playoff rotation."

A year ago, Ivan Nova was a pitcher in whom the Yankees held a lot of hope.

Now, his future sounds a lot more like wishful thinking.

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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