David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
The self-proclaimed "best pitcher in the world" returned to the Yankee Stadium mound for Saturday's critical game against the Rays. And for the first time in a long while, Ivan Nova actually looked the part -- or at least like someone who could crack the Top 20.
After spending more than three weeks on the disabled list with rotator-cuff inflammation, Nova also did something that CC Sabathia was unable to do the previous night: erase any lingering concerns about his health. Despite an 80-pitch leash going in, Nova cruised into the seventh inning and did most of the heavy lifting in the Yankees' 5-3 win.
When Joe Girardi was asked what he liked about Nova's performance, he replied, "Um. Everything."
What a relief it must have been for Girardi, who a day earlier had to endure another episode of the continuing drama series "What's Wrong with CC?" Girardi had some of the same fears heading into Nova's start, but he didn't require much maintenance at all.
Other than Desmond Jennings' single on the game's opening pitch -- Nova's first since an Aug. 21 loss to the White Sox -- Girardi had a relatively low-stress afternoon dealing with his starter. That was a pleasant surprise, given Nova's tendency to occasionally lose focus, but Girardi did pick one spot to deliver a brief wake-up call on the mound.
It came with two outs in the sixth inning after Evan Longoria's home run brought the Rays within 4-1. Nova had missed badly on his first two fastballs, and when he grooved a third, Longoria destroyed it.
The ball had barely landed in the seats when Girardi emerged from the dugout and briskly walked to the mound. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild usually is dispatched for such an errand, but Girardi knew this would get Nova's attention, which was the whole point. It did.
"I thought, is he going to take me out right now?" Nova said. "I didn't see anyone throwing in the bullpen."
With B.J. Upton up, Girardi needed Nova's focus back on the business at hand. The manager could live with a solo homer, but he didn't want this to be the beginning of the end for Nova's triumphant return.
The message? "Get the next guy, forget it," Girardi said. "We need you."
That was the version Girardi copped to, anyway. Maybe there was stronger language involved. More importantly, his timing was perfect. Nova threw a first-pitch strike to Upton, got ahead 1-and-2 and struck him out, tying him up inside with a 94-mph fastball.
Chris Stewart, giving Russell Martin the day off behind the plate, wasn't surprised that Girardi chose to buzz the tower in the sixth. Nova had lost his way this year, going 2-5 with a 5.63 ERA in the 12 starts leading up to his DL stint. That sudden vulnerability, combined with an aching rotator cuff, had sapped his confidence.
Stewart remembered catching Nova on Aug. 16 against the Rangers, his second-to-last start before the DL. Nova allowed seven hits, four walks and four runs in 52/3 innings but still left with a 5-4 lead.
"He wasn't struggling too bad then," Stewart said, "but he wasn't nearly what he was today. He wasn't the guy that we all wanted. He wasn't that guy."
Now is a good time for Nova to be "that guy" again. With Andy Pettitte on tap for Tuesday, it's comforting for the Yankees to know that Nova can be counted on again after his extended absence. They managed to stay afloat by patching holes with Freddy Garcia and David Phelps, but this is the rotation Girardi must have for the remainder of this month.
And if the entire season is riding on these next three weeks, the self-proclaimed "best pitcher in the world" looks like he probably can help.