David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
For the self-proclaimed "best pitcher in the world," the bar is set considerably lower these days. How low? When it comes to Ivan Nova, the Yankees aren't asking for much. They'll settle for enough. "Just for him to pitch well," Joe Girardi said before yesterday's 4-2 win over the Diamondbacks. "It's not necessarily seeing one thing or another. It's getting outs. It's missing some bats at times, getting big outs when you have to, controlling the game, in a sense."
In sizing up Nova's performance on this night, he satisfied some of those minimum requirements. He did get outs -- 15 to be exact. Nova also allowed seven hits and was fortunate to give up only two runs. The six strikeouts helped.
Nova stranded four D-Backs in scoring position through the first four innings, primarily because he found an out pitch when he needed it most. In the first, with two on, Nova froze Cody Ross with a slider. In the second, he struck out Cliff Pennington with a 94-mph fastball. In the third, again with two on, Nova fanned Eric Chavez with a sharp-breaking curve.
And with his pitch count rising, he got Martin Prado to wave at another curve to strand A.J. Pollock, who had reached third base with only one out in the fourth inning. At these pivotal moments, Nova delivered the pitch he needed. In between, however, Chris Stewart wondered what Nova was thinking.
"It's a mental approach," Stewart said. "Sometimes I've got to get in his head. I think that's all it is. He locks it in when guys get on base. W've got to get him locked in when guys aren't on base."
Without that urgency, Nova nearly drifted himself right off the mound. In the third inning, after a pair of singles and a walk loaded the bases, Girardi got Shawn Kelley up in the bullpen. But the manager stuck with Nova, despite Miguel Montero's sacrifice fly and Ross' RBI single. With the game in danger of slipping out of reach, that's when Nova whiffed Chavez on the nasty breaking pitch.
"That's one thing I've got to do," Nova said. "I've got to be aggressive from the beginning."
Once Nova navigated his way through the fifth inning -- his easiest of the night -- Girardi thought that 91 pitches was enough and had no intention of pushing his luck into the sixth. For all his talk before the game about getting some length from Nova, there was little point in taking that chance knowing that the bullpen just had two days off.
Nova asked Girardi to go back out for the sixth. The manager said no.
"I actually told Joe I wanted to keep going," Nova said. "But I feel good that we got the win."
Afterward, the manager emphasized that Nova hadn't pitched since his April 5 debut against the Tigers at Comerica Park -- a 10-day layoff -- and that flop came after an extended break at the end of spring training. "He's had two starts in about 20 days," Girardi said. "It hasn't been a good rhythm for him. I think he just kind of found himself at the end there."
It's too early to suggest Nova was pitching for his job against the Diamondbacks -- not on April 16 -- and he's fortunate that Phil Hughes has struggled as well. With Hughes a free agent after this season, the Yankees have more reason to be patient with Nova, providing he can show some signs of getting his act together.
Wang is signed to a month-by-month deal, meaning he can opt out at the end of each one if he wants to shop himself around for a better opportunity elsewhere. And in light of Andy Pettitte's recent back issues, combined with a wobbly back end of the rotation, Wang could get a shot sooner rather than later.
That won't happen yet. What they got from Nova wasn't great, but it was good enough for now.