If Ivan Nova can give the Yankees something resembling this type of performance every fifth day, they won't be considered $200-million underdogs for long.
In his first outing of the season, Nova held a deep Minnesota Twins lineup led by Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau to three runs in six innings en route to a 4-3 victory Monday night before 40,311 at Yankee Stadium.
Nova allowed six hits and a walk in his six innings before handing a one-run lead and the ball over to the late-inning tandem of Joba Chamberlain, Rafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera. The three combined to pitch three scoreless innings, just as they did against the Tigers on Opening Day.
Manager Joe Girardi showed some faith in Nova by sending him out for the sixth inning to face the middle of the Twins' order even after he gave up three two-out runs in the previous two innings.
Last season Nova had a 12.86 ERA from the fifth inning on, often struggling when he faced hitters a second and third time. But Girardi felt it was important to see how he performed with a one-run lead.
"Those are things he's going to have to be able to do for us," Girardi said. "He's going to have to get through those situations. It's all a part of learning how to pitch at this level."
After Morneau started the sixth with a single, Boone Logan got up in the bullpen and David Robertson soon joined him. But Nova made sure they weren't needed. He got Delmon Young to ground into a double play and struck out Jim Thome on a 92-mph fastball, ending his first outing of the season on an upbeat note.
Nova said he was excited to face Thome in that situation because he wanted to avenge what happened in the fourth inning. With runners at the corners and two outs, Thome crushed a full-count changeup from Nova for a two-run double that made it 4-2.
Thome has 589 career homers, but "when I faced him again,'' Nova said, "I said I'm going to take you out right now."
The Yankees were encouraged by Nova's poise in spring training and impressed by the 1.80 ERA he posted in 20 innings. CC Sabathia said he noticed a different level of confidence and comfort with Nova as he fought for a spot in the rotation, and Posada said it's carried over into the season.
"He looks a lot calmer, a lot more relaxed on the mound," Posada said. "It looks like he belongs."
"It's all about being comfortable,'' Sabathia said before the game. "It took me a while to get comfortable being in the big leagues, getting used to coming to the ballpark and being around different teammates. He got that experience last year, so I think coming in this year he's been a lot more comfortable, a lot more confident. I noticed that right away.''
The Yankees, who have hit 11 home runs in four games, staked Nova to a quick 4-0 lead with another power surge.
With two outs in the first inning, Mark Teixeira was hit by a pitch and Rodriguez hit a laser into the leftfield stands, the 615th homer of his career.
"I just got a good pitch to hit," he said, "and smoked it."
Now a full-time designated hitter, Posada laughed when asked if he's felt fresher without having to take a daily beating behind the plate. Said Posada, "Ask me in September."