Brian Cashman just couldn't take his eyes off him.

He was long and lean, with easy velocity -- traits that made the Yankees' general manager instantly take notice. Cashman had traveled to St. Petersburg, Fla., to see another minor-league pitcher, but it was the baby-faced righthander who caught his attention that day in 2006.

"He was in the instructional league pitching against the Rays and I saw him and I go, ' . . . who's this kid?' " Cashman said Wednesday. "And they said, 'That's Ivan Nova.'

" . . . We signed him and I was like, 'I love everything about him.' His size, his ability. He just stood out. But I was the first one to point him out to myself."

Five years ago, Nova was just another anonymous prospect pitching in the lowest level of the Yankees' organization. But now Nova (16-4, 3.62) -- the Game 2 starter against the Red Sox in Sunday's split doubleheader -- is their most reliable arm behind CC Sabathia and a lock for the postseason rotation.

At 6-4, 225 pounds, Nova had established himself as a big, strong-armed righthander with above-average velocity (93 mph) on his grounder-inducing fastball. But it was the addition of a cutter -- honed with the help of former Yankees pitching coach Billy Connors during spring training -- that made Nova a force.

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"I was planning on having a good season but, I'm not going to say that's too much, but it's really good," said Nova, 24, who is in contention for Rookie of the Year.

Nova has won his last 12 decisions. If he earns his 17th victory Sunday, he will join Sabathia and Detroit's Justin Verlander as the only rookies since 2000 to reach that plateau -- even after getting caught in a numbers game and spending almost the entire month of July with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

And to think the Yankees almost let him get away.

They signed him at the age of 17 in 2004 but were willing to take a gamble after he went 8-13 with a 4.36 ERA for high Class A Tampa in 2008. The Padres selected Nova in the Rule 5 draft that winter and had the option of keeping him on the major-league roster for the next season or offering him back to the Yankees. Cashman had hoped the Padres eventually would return him, and after Nova gave up eight runs in 82/3 innings in spring training, they did just that.

"We felt that if it clicked, there was tremendous upside," former Padres general manager Kevin Towers said in a phone interview this past week. "Which, when you look at what happened, there certainly is in New York, with his record and what he's been able to accomplish."

Towers, now the Diamondbacks' GM, saw Nova "quite a bit'' last season as a special assignment scout for Cashman. "I was pinching myself just saying, 'Guess we probably should have kept him,' " Towers said.

Cashman admitted he dodged a bullet. But in the end, his gamble paid off "and thankfully, we were right," he said. "We got him back."

What the Yankees got was a laid-back kid with a fiery temperament on the mound. And while much of the regular-season talk has centered on the resurgence of veterans Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon and A.J. Burnett's bewildering inefficiency, Nova -- who has gone unbeaten since June 3 -- has cemented himself as a rock in the rotation.

"He's growing in front of us," Jorge Posada said.

Burnett, who has developed a special relationship with the rookie, said he isn't surprised by Nova's success. "He's got such a good head on him for a young kid," Burnett said. "He's very humble, and when he gets the ball, he wants to win."

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But Nova was the odd man out in July when the Yankees needed to make room for Phil Hughes, who returned from a nearly-three-month stint on the disabled list. Nova insisted he understood the move, calling it "one bump in the road." But those around him knew how hard he took the demotion.

"I said: 'Sometimes things don't seem fair,' '' Joe Girardi said, recalling their conversation. "I said, 'You have thrown the ball great for us. Your job is to go down and make sure we could never send you down again.' He took it well. A lot better than I expected. A lot better than a lot of players."

Nova's teammates called and sent him text messages in an attempt to keep his spirits up. "A couple of us stayed on him: Stay sharp, stay focused down there because you know we're going to need you," said Burnett, Sunday's Game 1 starter. "He knew that he'd be back soon enough."

Months later, Nova can admit it was a blessing in disguise.

"I remember situations in the past where [Girardi would] take me out," he said of his growth since last season. "So every time he gives me the confidence to stay in the game, you just got to go and prove [you can do it] and don't make him look bad."

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His poise under pressure rarely is seen in pitchers his age, but the Yankees have come to expect it. "When he's out on the mound, he turns into a bulldog," Nick Swisher said.

"He believes in himself," pitching coach Larry Rothschild said. "He gets frustrated with himself when he knows he's not throwing the ball the way he can, but he's out there to win games."

Neither Towers nor Cashman could have predicted the course of Nova's career in pinstripes. And if given a chance, neither general manager would change the past.

"I guess in hindsight I'm glad we didn't keep him,'' Towers said, "because he'd be pitching against us four or five times during the season here in the NL West."

Said Cashman: "Some guys you hope for more from and they don't perform to their level or other guys get hurt. Phil Hughes obviously got hurt this year, A.J. hasn't performed up to our hopes . . . I thought [Nova] could be a strong contributor to the back of our rotation and he's obviously pitched towards the front. I know he's capable of that, I just didn't think we'd get that in 2011."

Longest winning streaks by Yankees rookie pitcher with season stats
 StreakPitcherYearW-LGamesERAWHIP
12Russ Ford191026-6361.650.881
12Atley Donald193913-3243.711.333
11Ivan Nova201116-4273.621.333
11Johnny Allen193217-4333.701.240
9Whitey Ford19509-1202.811.241