Ordinarily, surviving year-long train wreck A.J. Burnett, only to have the entire season rest in a rookie like Ivan Nova’s hands Thursday would wreak havoc with a Yankees fan’s stomach.
Nova’s belly is doing just fine, though. He already has traveled quite a road to get to the ALDS Game 5 against Tigers right-hander Doug Fister. And the kid isn’t going to get the willies now, even if the Yankees’ entire season hinges on his first-ever postseason start.
“I don’t usually get nervous,” said Nova, who brought a 16-4, 3.70 regular-season performance into last week’s rain-suspended Game 1, where he produced 6 1/3 innings of four-hit, two-run ball in relief of Friday starter CC Sabathia. “I just have fun.”
“Unflappable” is what Yankees catcher Russell Martin called the cool right-hander. And Nova has good reason to be that way. He gained a ton of confidence through an incredible rookie season, and brings a 17-start unbeaten streak into the game, not to mention becoming the first pinstriped rookie in a half-century to win as many games as he did.
On top of that, he’s really no stranger to the pressure of such games. As a member of the Yanks’ Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre affiliate in 2009, Nova threw eight innings of one-run ball in a winner-take-all postseason loss to Durham. And even that had proved an unlikely turn of events considering where Nova came from.
The undrafted free agent of 2004 didn‘t advance from Class A Tampa until 2008, when San Diego selected him in the Rule 5 Draft. After clearing waivers at the end of 2009 spring training, he returned to the Yanks and was elevated to Triple-A despite an 8.31 ERA over 8 1/3 innings.
That same season, he was added to the Yanks’ 40-man roster, thereby protecting him from another Rule 5 selection.
He made the rotation this year, only to be sent down when Phil Hughes came back from an injury. Manager Joe Girardi demoted him with the admonition to come back and never make him an option choice again.
Nova obeyed. And now the season rests with his five-pitch repertoire.
“Once you get to October, there are no rookies,” Mark Teixeira said. “This is a guy that’s won a lot of games for us, been in a lot of big spots and pitched great. You saw what he did in Game 1. He’s not scared.”