What Ivan Nova has done since being recalled from Triple-A has been among the most pleasant surprises for the Yankees this season. During a time where they were struggling with inconsistent performances from A.J. and Bartolo Colon and trying to work Phil Hughes back into the fold, Nova provided some consistency behind CC Sabathia. As he has continued to pitch well since his recall, Nova has made himself an increasingly likely candidate for the postseason rotation, with that spot being all but locked up as he headed into last night's start. And last night's start, particularly the 7th inning, proved to me that Nova has what it takes to handle that responsibility.
Through 6 innings Nova had been very good. He had held the Rays scoreless up to that point thanks to a combination of timely pitching and good defense, and scattered 5 hits, a walk, and an HBP. His pitch count was low, his stuff was looking good, and all was right with the world. But then he gave up a leadoff single, hit the next batter, and walked the one after that on 4 pitches. Suddenly the fastball command was gone, Nova looked rattled, and the wheels looked like they were starting to come off of his great start as the batting order cycled back around to the top with the dangerous combination of Desmond Jennings and B.J. Upton.
This was the point where most pitchers Nova's age collapse. They either try to get cute and lob one over the middle to throw a strike or continue to overthrow and walk the next batter. Earlier in the year, I would have bet Nova falls into that same trap, but last night he took a deep breath (literally), got his composure, stepped back on the rubber, and refocused on the next batter. He threw quality strikes to get ahead of Jennings 1-2, then ran a nasty 94 MPH heater up and in on Jennings' hands that he weakly popped into shallow left field, failing to bring the runner at 3rd home. Then, after falling behind Upton 1-0, Nova didn't give in and throw a meatball. Instead he throw a fastball inside and at the knees that Upton rolled over on and grounded weakly to 3rd to start the inning-ending double play.
Nova was in it deep, but instead of giving in and succumbing to the pressure, he buckled down and went after the hitters. He located his pitches in good spots to induce weak contact, a great approach against a team of swingers like the Rays, and worked himself out of trouble. And more importantly, Joe didn't go with the quick hook when things started to fall apart. He left Nova in and said "sink or swim" and Nova swam. He showed he can handle these situations and make pitches when he has to. It's a trend that Nova has been following since the recall and it has served him well. He isn't going to strike a lot of guys out, but he makes pitches when he has to. And that's why we're going to see him get the ball in a big spot come October.
(Just call him "Nova The Awesome" now)