Perhaps the label of staff ace bestowed upon Ivan Nova by many after his superior month of August was a bit premature.
After being named Pitcher of the Month by Major League Baseball on Wednesday, Nova had a subpar performance against the AL East-leading Boston Red Sox Thursday night.
Nova labored through four innings in his first September start, allowing five hits, two walks and three earned runs. But he got a no-decision when the Yankees took the lead in the seventh inning of what became a 9-8 Red Sox victory in 10 innings. It was the first time Nova didn't pitch at least into the seventh since rejoining the team on June 23 after a demotion to Triple-A.
The main problem for the righthander was that he was unable to put away batters early in counts. Of the 96 pitches Nova threw, 47 were tossed during a grueling third inning. Nova faced eight batters, and the only times he didn't get into at least a five-pitch battle was when he issued an intentional walk to David Ortiz and a subsequent four-pitch walk to Daniel Nava.
"I threw all my pitches and I made good pitches that they kept fouling off," Nova said. "Today was one of those days when you feel good but you don't get the job done."
Nova opened the inning by yielding three straight hits, including a ground-rule double by Jacoby Ellsbury that drove in Ryan Lavarnway.
"It seems like they have a really good idea with what they wanted to do today," Nova said of the Red Sox hitters. "I made a lot of good pitches and they didn't swing at them; they came prepared for that.
"Every time I got ahead and thought, I'm going to strike them out with a curveball, I'm going to strike them out with a curveball, and they weren't swinging at it."
The pain was more short-lived in the fourth. Will Middlebrooks blasted a two-out solo homer to give the Red Sox a 3-2 lead. A batter later, Nova's night ended when he got Ellsbury to fly out to left.
In six August starts, Nova went 4-0 with a 2.08 ERA. Despite the poor performance last night, he still hasn't given up more than four runs in any start since June 23. He also threw the first two complete games of his career, including a three-hit shutout of the Orioles on Saturday.
Before the game, manager Joe Girardi attributed Nova's success to the pitcher commanding his fastball down in the zone and an improved consistency in his curveball.
"And when you're throwing the baseball like he is, he probably should feel some confidence out there because he's getting his strikeouts when he needs them, he's getting a lot of ground-ball outs, and that's important in a park like this and when you're playing a team like this," Girardi had said.
Those pitches worked for Nova at times during the game. But the consistency he exhibited last month eluded him.
Despite the subpar outing, Nova appears ready to put the start behind him and not let it affect the rest of his season.
"It's nothing that I can do,'' he said. "I'm trying to do my best and I couldn't do the job today, so I'm just going to turn the page."