Commentary

Nova turns up pressure on Hughes

With Phil Hughes struggling, Ivan Nova pitches strong case to remain in rotation

Updated: June 23, 2013, 9:49 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Ask Ivan Nova about his experience as a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRider and he talks like a guy who just escaped from a Turkish prison.

"I never want to go back there, man," he muttered. "You work so hard to be here and once you get there, there's no way you want to be back there. It's very hard."

[+] EnlargeNova
William Perlman/USA TODAY SportsIvan Nova tossed a solid 6 2/3 innings (3 ER, 7 K) in his first start since May 29.

Ask him about the worst part of being back in Triple-A -- the endless bus rides, the dingy clubhouses, the stingy meal money -- and he brushes off the question like a man trying desperately to expunge a particularly painful memory from his brain.

"You don't want to be there," he says, his eyes fixed on the luscious blue carpet that coddles the Yankee Stadium home clubhouse, his voice barely audible. "That's the bottom line. You don't want to be there, man. You see your old teammates in the minor leagues and you're happy to see them but it's not like you want to be over there."

Still, Nova says he went to Scranton with "a good attitude" and an even better store of determination to make it back to the show, where he opened the third act of his major-league career against the Tampa Bay Rays Sunday at Yankee Stadium.

And even though he wound up wearing the scarlet L, for loss, in the Yankees' 3-1 defeat, Nova was sufficiently satisfied with his performance to feel reasonably sure that he had spared himself another trip to Lackawanna County.

"I gotta say yes," Nova said when asked if he thought he had pitched well enough to remain in the Yankees' starting rotation.

That remains to be seen, but his performance in his first start since May 29 was certainly better than the recent outings of Phil Hughes, the man he is most likely to displace if manager Joe Girardi and general manager Brian Cashman decide to make a move.

Nova pitched one shaky inning, the first, in which he allowed a run on two hits, followed by five outstanding innings, over which he scattered five singles and struck out five hitters, and closed with one that turned out to be disastrous, hitting two batters with two outs, both of whom came around to score.

There's plenty of blame to spread around there: Nova had no business hitting two guys with two outs, but then Shawn Kelley, who followed him, should not have walked Evan Longoria on five pitches to load the bases. And although it will not show up in his ERA, Boone Logan, brought in to retire lefty-hitting James Loney, should never have allowed a a 1-2 single to score both runners.

Girardi, knowing Nova's history of unraveling late in a game and aware of the 87-degree day that he was toiling under, might have been better advised not to send him out for the seventh to begin with.

Of course, there is the Yankees' offense, proclaimed much improved, if not mended, with the arrival of Zoilo Almonte and back-to-back wins over the mediocre Rays, which reverted to its familiar ways, wasting four good scoring opportunities, going 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position, and after pushing across a first-inning run, being unable to do anything with young Chris Archer, making just his fifth start of the season.

Make no mistake, this was a loss with few redeeming qualities, and Nova's first six innings was certainly one of them, if not the only one.

"He was just consistently throwing strikes with everything he had," catcher Chris Stewart said. "His fastball was sinking, we were able to get some groundballs. His curveball was really good."

Girardi, too, proclaimed himself "really pleased" with Nova, but when asked what his plans for Nova's future were, the manager said, emphatically, "I have no idea."

Right now, the choice is between Nova and Hughes, who is 3-6 with a 5.09 ERA, but has lost four of his last five decisions. Over that span, the ERA has been close to 6.00.

Already, Girardi has pushed Hughes' next start back two days to Thursday, which keeps Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte, far more valuable pieces of his rotation, on their regular days. And with Monday's off-day, CC Sabathia's next regular turn would be Thursday, which would make it easy for the Yankees to skip Hughes altogether and bring back Nova on regular rest for Friday's series opener against the Orioles in Baltimore.

Although Girardi has said, "I haven't even thought about removing Phil from the rotation," he acknowledged after Sunday's game, "When you see the way [Nova] pitched today, he makes it real hard."

There has never been any doubt about the quality of Nova's pitches (he was hitting 95 mph with his fastball and his slider was diving out of the zone for much of the day), just his focus and concentration. There really is no other explanation for why a pitcher as talented as him can lose control of a game as quickly as he has on more occasions than Girardi would like to remember.

"He's got very good stuff," Girardi said. "It's the consistency of his pitches that makes the difference, and we saw it today."

Asked directly if Nova's quality outing put more pressure on Hughes to perform well, assuming he makes Thursday's start, the manager hedged without completely sidestepping.

"Well, every time you go out there it's an opportunity to show what you can do," he said. "This is a game that you have to prove yourself over and over."

In that case, it is fair to say Nova took good, if not full, advantage of his opportunity on Sunday, and Hughes must do the same on Thursday, or whenever his next turn comes.

And of course, waiting in the wings is Michael Pineda, recovering from shoulder surgery and preparing to make a start for the Double-A Trenton Thunder this week. He could be headed back to Yankee Stadium before the All-Star break.

"The decision that they make, I don't got no control about that," Nova said. "I just got to be happy with the way I threw the ball, and I am. I don't know if I opened their eyes today, but I opened my eyes. That gave me a little more confidence in myself. I knew I could pitch better, and I did."

As well as Nova pitched, it wasn't quite good to get the Yankees a win. But it may have been good enough to keep him out of Scranton, which for Ivan Nova might be the biggest victory of all.

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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