Yankees starting pitcher Ivan Nova warms up before facing the...

Yankees starting pitcher Ivan Nova warms up before facing the Toronto Blue Jays in a spring training game. (March 8, 2012) Credit: AP

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Mariano Rivera remembers Steve Howe for reasons other than what most fans remember the late lefthander for -- his seven suspensions for substance abuse.

When Rivera came up to the big leagues in 1995 as a 25-year-old, Howe, 37, mentored him.

"He was real good to me," Rivera said early Tuesday morning. "I will never forget that. And that was '95. Now we're at 2013 and I try to do that for others."

One of those Rivera has taken under his wing in recent years is Ivan Nova, 26. He's trying to regain the 2011 form that allowed him to go 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA, which had team officials thinking they had a future starter for the front end of the rotation.

But Nova, frustrated and eventually injured in 2012, slipped to 12-8, 5.02, and entered spring training in a competition with David Phelps for the fifth starter's job.

"He has the abilities to help the team," Rivera said shortly before Nova and some of his teammates left Steinbrenner Field on Tuesday morning for the game against the Rays. "We need him."

Phelps has pitched well all spring, but Nova hasn't blinked, and he put four more solid innings together Tuesday in the Yankees' 3-1 victory at Charlotte Sports Park. Nova did allow four hits but, aided by Francisco Cervelli throwing out two runners and a pair of nice catches in center by Melky Mesa, he did not allow a run. Nova, who struck out two and didn't walk a batter, lowered his ERA to 1.00 in three starts.

"This is a new year, I have to forget about last year," Nova said. "I'm really enjoying it, this moment right here, and the way I'm pitching right now."

Nova said that during good times in 2011 and not-so-good ones last season, Rivera was in his ear.

"He's Mariano Rivera," Nova said. "I have to feel special that he came to me and talked to me every day and tried to help me with anything he thinks I can do better. We're going to miss Mo, especially me. He's an amazing guy."

Nova said conversations the last couple of years with Rivera, though encouraging, are of a "serious" nature. If he wants to yuk it up in the clubhouse, there are other options.

"One time he told me, 'If you don't do what you're supposed to do, you're going to get sent down. You're not doing everything necessary to stay,' '' Nova said.

"I couldn't even look into his eyes. You feel bad. It's Mariano Rivera telling you you're going to get sent down, that you're not doing something right. He said you have to keep pushing, you have to keep fighting, you have to pitch well."

With a shortened delivery, something pitching coach Larry Rothschild started to implement two weeks before pitchers and catchers reported, Nova has done that this spring.

Said Joe Girardi: "I really believe the adjustment he made is going to help him and he won't go through the lack of command he went through at times last year."

All things being equal, the job is Nova's to lose, but the righthander won't handicap the race.

"I'm not thinking about if I'm doing enough," Nova said. "I just know I'm doing my job by pitching well and I'm enjoying the time I'm having so far."

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