Ivan Nova makes Yankees smile with good start

Ivan Nova warms up his arm during the Ivan Nova warms up his arm during the first day of spring training at George Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla. (Feb. 12, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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TAMPA, Fla. -- Pitching coach Larry Rothschild hinted in early February that Ivan Nova had the inside track on the fifth starter's job, but Joe Girardi hinted at nothing. "He has to go out and prove himself,'' he said. "That's the bottom line because of what he went through the second half of last season. He has to go out and earn a job.''

After watching his primary competition, David Phelps, record two impressive exhibition starts, Nova finally got his chance to make an impression Saturday. And it was a good one.

The righthander allowed one hit and struck out one in two innings as the Yankees snapped a seven-game losing streak with a 10-3 victory over the Tigers at Steinbrenner Field. Nova threw 27 pitches, 22 for strikes.

"Secondary stuff looked pretty good," one scout said, and Girardi said Nova's fastball stood out. "I thought his fastball command was really good," he said. "Pleased with where he was at his first start. He needs to build on that."

Nova's best pitch of the day might have been the looping 81-mph curveball for a called third strike that he threw to Kevin Russo. "A really good day," catcher Chris Stewart said.

Said Nova, "Finally. It was a long time not to be on the mound. I feel really good. I'm concentrating on attacking the strike zone, and I did it today. That's what I have to do."

That was something Nova didn't think he did enough of in 2012, a year marked by inconsistency. There were renewed questions about whether he ever would become the front-of-the-rotation starter he had been projected to be -- and indeed appeared to be for much of 2011, when he went 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA. He was 12-8, 5.02 in 2012.

"When he's consistent, he's dynamite," Girardi said. "And he wins, and he pitches extremely well. For me, he needs to be confident in his stuff and he needs to be confident in his abilities to really make it work."

Nova finished the first half of 2012 at 10-3 with a 3.92 ERA, but it came apart after the All-Star break. He went 1-4 with a 7.28 ERA in eight starts before going on the DL with right rotator cuff inflammation and was 2-5 with a 7.05 ERA in the second half. "He had such a long arm motion last year, it's tough to repeat it if you're not fully confident in it," Stewart said. "This year he's a lot shorter so he can repeat it a lot easier. We saw the results today."

With an offense that Brian Cashman has acknowledged will score fewer runs than in previous years, Nova's importance can't be understated.

"Hopefully it's the guy we saw two years ago," Stewart said. "A guy going out there with confidence every single day and not afraid, throwing strikes and daring people to hit him. He's got the stuff, obviously. It's just a matter of putting it together. If he can do what he did today, he's going to be real good."

Phelps has not allowed a run in five innings in two starts, but Rothschild, speaking the first week of February, gave voice to the feeling of the organization. "You look at Nova and he's had a lot of wins the last two years,'' he had said. "My job going into spring training is to get him back to where he should be and pitching the way he's capable of, and the rest will take care of itself."

In other words, it's all in Nova's hands. Just the way he likes it. "I know what I have in my hands,'' Nova said earlier in spring training. "I know what I got and I know what I can do, so I just have to do it.''

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