David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Ivan Nova's return Wednesday after missing nearly 14 months because of Tommy John surgery was a feel-good story all-around for the Yankees, unless you happen to be the weak link in this team's six-man rotation.
By effortlessly handling the lowly Phillies for 62/3 scoreless innings -- something that neither Michael Pineda nor CC Sabathia could do in the two humiliating losses -- Nova convinced the Yankees that a few shaky rehab starts were nothing to worry about.
Sabathia, however, should be getting a little nervous.
The Yankees intend to keep six starters through their next off day, which falls on July 2. But with another break only three days later, that would allow them to skip Sabathia's turn on that date, if that's the course they decide to take.
"We probably won't make the decision until we get through this stretch," Joe Girardi said. "There's no need to make that decision now."
But Nova's impressive 2015 debut gives the Yankees some flexibility with what had become a suspect rotation. He allowed only three hits -- one a soft infield single -- and reported no physical problems afterward.
Coming back from TJ surgery is always a delicate process, but Nova put any initial concerns to rest with the 92-pitch outing. His fastball velocity ranged from 93 to 95 mph, with Nova featuring a decent sinker and curve. Sure, this was the Phillies, the weakest offensive team in the sport. But it was the same group that hammered the Yankees for 11 runs during each of the previous two days.
Nova also neutralized Maikel Franco, holding him hitless in three at-bats after he went a combined 6-for-8 with three homers and 10 RBIs in the first two games at the Stadium.
"It had been 14 months," Nova said, "and I felt really good."
The Yankees are obsessive about protecting their pitchers, and given their medical history, it's probably a smart plan. They're committed to innings limits for Pineda and Masahiro Tanaka, and we'd have to think Nova will be scrutinized as well, at least early on.
Girardi doesn't believe Nova will require kid-glove treatment, and that's critical, because the Yankees can use more length from their starters, like they got Wednesday from Nova.
Also, some quality innings didn't hurt for a rotation that had a 4.50 ERA before he took the mound.
That's not the sort of ERA that gets a team to the playoffs. But Nova's return could help trim that, and at the same time, remove the worst offender from the rotation. The Yankees still can't hang with the Rays when it comes to starting pitching, but an upgrade like Nova may give them more of a fighting chance.
After the victory, Girardi was asked if he was "convinced" the Yankees had a rotation that could win the AL East.
"Yeah, I am," he said. "Obviously, you have to pitch to your potential. But I am convinced. I believe it's there."
The manager wasn't about to say no, but he did add that condition. The Yankees' starters haven't consistently lived up to their resumes this season, as the occasional highs inevitably have been followed by shocking lows.
Brian Cashman is sure to look for outside help as the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline draws closer, but Cole Hamels didn't have a great audition Wednesday for a pitcher that's due $86.2 million through 2018. The Yankees have Luis Severino still developing at Triple-A Scranton, where he's 3-0 with a 2.15 ERA, and Cashman said earlier this month he could be an option later this season.
The friction-less move would be to return Adam Warren to the bullpen when the Yankees revert to a five-man rotation, but there's a problem with that. He's been a reliable starter, with a 2.76 ERA in his last five outings.
These things tend to work themselves out, as injuries or other stuff pops up, and Girardi knows that.
With a healthy Nova back, however, the Yankees will feel much better when they do.