Remember when Ivan Nova was the one who had to prove himself? The guy who was so inconsistent, he got sent down to the minors earlier this season, so unreliable that when he did return, he was relegated to the bullpen in favor of David Phelps?
It's OK if the memory is hazy, what with so many other guys the Yankees really can't rely on -- their rehabbing third basemen, for starters, and their mediocre former ace and their lackluster offense, if you're counting the stuff that actually happens on the field.
Nova gave the Yankees every possible opportunity to win against the Tampa Bay Rays Saturday, pitching himself out of difficult situations, striking out eight and otherwise being nearly unscored on for seven innings.
"Nearly,'' though, wasn't enough to jump-start the hit-challenged Yankees, who couldn't overcome Kelly Johnson's two-out RBI single in the sixth inning in the Rays' 1-0 victory. They were held hitless for 41/3 innings and got only one runner in scoring position.
"It's very bad,'' Nova said. "We haven't scored enough runs . . . Sometimes when you pitch good, it's hard to get a loss. It doesn't feel great.''
Excuse Nova his frankness; he's had to deal with this before. In his previous start, he allowed three earned runs in seven innings against Texas -- and the Yankees were shut out then, too.
On Saturday, his ERA fell to 3.41, but his record dropped to an unimpressive 4-4. Otherwise, "it always feels good to be pitching good again,'' he said. "It's not only my curveball, it's my other pitches. I've been throwing strikes. I've been aggressive. I know a lot of people give the credit to my curveball, but my pitches have been great.''
After retiring the side in order in the second and third, Nova allowed a double by Wil Myers and walked James Loney to begin the fourth. Then he did some of his best work of the day with back-to-back-to-back swinging strikeouts on three curveballs to Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce and Johnson.
"When we needed big outs, for the most part, he got them,'' manager Joe Girardi said. "He got strikeouts when he needed them. He had seven really good innings and he gave us a chance to win the game, and unfortunately, we didn't score a run today. I thought he threw the ball exceptionally well.''
Nova allowed six hits, walked three and has struck out more batters only once this year -- an 11-strikeout effort in a complete game against Baltimore on July 5. He has allowed nine earned runs in his last 362/3 innings, a 2.21 ERA.
"You gotta try to keep your team close and hope that they're going to score a run at some point,'' Nova said. "That's the only thing I can do -- try to keep my team in the game.''
He's done it, and the pitcher so often labeled as inconsistent has lately been anything but. Now, if only the Yankees could return the favor.