David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
The last time two Yankees pitchers allowed seven or more runs in the same game -- as Ivan Nova and Vidal Nuño did in Tuesday's 14-5 loss to the Orioles -- was in 2009, the night Chien-Ming Wang and Anthony Claggett each tossed up an eight-spot in a 22-4 drubbing by the Indians.
Wang, as you may remember, was a trusted member of the Yankees rotation and a two-time 19-game winner before a freakish foot injury derailed his stay in the Bronx. Claggett pitched just twice more in the majors, including a final relief appearance for the Pirates, before his three-game career closed with a 27.00 ERA.
In Nova, the Yankees keep projecting a starter like Wang, and base those high hopes on the 16-4 season he had in 2011. Heading into Tuesday, Nova's 2.66 ERA since May 25 was the second-lowest of any American League pitcher during that span with a minimum of 100 innings.
While the 2009 Indians debacle shows that even someone like Wang can have a bad day, with Nova, the worry is he'll end up being the Claggett of this year's rotation. We're exaggerating somewhat, obviously, but Joe Girardi didn't hide his frustration after Nova imploded Tuesday for 10 hits and seven runs.
Nova's inconsistency makes him the biggest enigma of a group that also includes Masahiro Tanaka, 25, a Japanese rookie with one major-league start under his belt, and another starter trying to rebound from shoulder surgery in Michael Pineda. Both of them seem more trustworthy after we've watched Nova in his first two starts. And the manager isn't sure what to pin Nova's issues on.
"That's a tough question to answer," Girardi said. "Obviously, you would say when his pitches aren't crisp, there's something that's off mechanically. Is it caused by an approach? All I know is that his stuff wasn't sharp. Whether it's physical, mental or both -- or neither -- the big thing is we got to get him back on track."
On April 8, a week into the season, that's about as freaked as a manager can get regarding a starting pitcher. We're talking about 91/3 innings, the smaller of sample sizes. But Nova looked like he was prepped for an impressive launch after striking out 20 with zero walks in his last four spring training starts, a stretch of 181/3 innings.
Instead, Nova has misfired. He struggled to hold the Astros to two runs in 52/3 innings at Minute Maid Park, but Girardi blamed that on the down time between the finish of the Grapefruit League and Nova's first turn of the regular season. On Tuesday, Girardi didn't have a ready-made excuse. Neither did Nova, who left the bullpen warm-up believing he was primed to handle the Orioles.
"I thought it was going to be a good day today," Nova said. "It didn't happen."
And a couple of sideshows weren't to blame. In the first inning, it can be argued that Derek Jeter should have scooped up Delmon Young's grounder for a double play that could have saved three runs. But the Yankees know that's going to be part of the package with Jeter this season, and it falls to Nova to pick him up -- rather than surrender a two-run homer to Adam Jones two batters later.
The next inning, Nova and Francisco Cervelli -- tossed into a trial by fire at first base -- got crossed up on a bunt. That led to another run. If Nova had pitched to his potential Tuesday, maybe these little glitches never become problems. But the Yankees weren't that lucky.
Girardi talked about Nova still striving to "go to the next level" and these two starts indicate it might still be a hike.
Not Everest, but maybe like taking the stairs to the top of the Empire State Building. Nova said after the rout that he had yet to look over the video to see what he was doing wrong. A sit-down with pitching coach Larry Rothschild is certainly on the agenda."You never know how a guy is going to come out of the chute," Girardi said. "You just don't. But I know he's more than capable of turning this around and being a big-time pitcher for us."
That was more like the manager-speak we're used to. But again, from what we've seen, Nova is shaping up to be the weakest link of this Yankees rotation -- until he proves otherwise.