In a season littered with fallen soldiers, the New York Yankees needed someone to rise from the ashes to keep the team alive. Ivan Nova, halfway buried in the middle of May, has roared back to life and taken the Yankees with him.
Injured in April and sent to the Minors in May, Nova looked to be nothing but a footnote on the 2013 season. But a strong performance in Triple-A coupled with injuries to the big club prompted the Yankees to recall Nova in late June, and the imposing right-hander has certainly made the most of his second opportunity.
Since rejoining the starting rotation for good on July 5th against the Orioles, Nova is 4-2 in seven starts and should probably be 7-0. He has sneered at the notion that six innings/three runs denotes a “quality start”, often pitching into the seventh or eighth instead. And unlike his teammate C.C. Sabathia, Nova has paired length with dominance, not once allowing more than three runs since returning to the rotation.
Consider this: Nova has thrown 52 1/3 innings dating back to July 5th, and surrendered just 11 runs. His ERA over that period is 1.89. In just over a month, he has deflated his 2013 ERA from 4.63 to 2.99. There are other numbers to marvel at as well in this sample, from his 8.6 K/9 to his 1.05 WHIP, but ultimately, evidence of Nova’s dominance comes from watching him.
Like any sinkerball pitcher, Nova’s success depends on keeping the ball low in the zone. And it’s his consistency in this area that has been the hallmark of his summer resurgence – not suddenly throwing harder, changing his release point, or discovering a new pitch. He is categorically the same breed of pitcher he was in April, only now he’s hitting his spots.
His fastball, which averages 94 mph and often touches 96, is straight but heavy. When down in the zone and on the corners, the most a hitter can do with it is foul it off. Reward for spoiling a Nova fastball is a throbbing vibration in one’s hands, which can be most closely related to slamming the handle of an axe into an immovable log. His sinker, which also sits around 94 mph, does not sit at all. It tails and drops, away from lefties and into righties, inducing groundballs at a terrific rate.
But the piece that completes the puzzle for Nova is his dazzling curveball. He can throw it over the plate for called strikes and off the plate for swinging strikes. The pitch – when it’s on – breaks so suddenly and so sharply that hitters often swing at balls that bounce in the opposite batter’s box. Among Yankee pitchers, it’s the most devastating two-strike pitch shown this year.
What’s even more impressive about Nova is he doesn’t wait for two strikes to throw it. In a manner reminiscent of Mike Mussina, he will often go to his curveball in hitter’s counts and to his fastball in pitcher’s counts. He isn’t quite the technician of trickery that the Moose was, who would freely drop in a knucklecurve in 3-1 counts, but Nova has that gumption, that cheek, to disregard conventional wisdom and pitch by his own rules.
Most of all, he has the confidence. Sometimes you can sense a pitcher’s confidence – say, when he’s using all of his pitches or working quickly. But with Nova, you can literally see it. On the hill, he is the essence of equanimity, the quintessence of cool. Even when delivering a pitch his body is implausibly loose, as if he’s throwing batting practice in Robbie Cano’s backyard. He swaggers around the mound with his head up and his chin out, in a way that’s cocky but…natural. Nova is one of the few pitchers in the game who, against any hitter, thinks screw this guy, I’m better than him.
Some might call that arrogance, but lately, Nova has been right. Opponents are hitting .219 against him since July 5th, with just 11 extra-base hits in nearly 200 at bats. So at the very least, he’s justified. And then hear Nova gush about how thankful he is for the opportunity he has been given, about how he just wants to do his team proud, and any notion of conceit vanishes, like that deadly curveball.
The Yankees, of course, aren’t worried about his character. Neither, it should be noted, are the New York fans, a lot that only judges a man by his exploits on the ball field. (After serenading A-Rod in boos his first night home, the diehards at the Stadium have already begun cheering the league-wide villain as he rounds into hitting shape.) And who’s to blame them? After watching a depleted ballclub flounder through June and July, any kind of rogue is forgiven if he can help the team win.
No one, outside of Hiroki Kuroda, has helped the Yankees win recently more than Nova. He has stabilized a rotation that was being carried single-handedly by a 38-year-old veteran, and aided an offense that was struggling to score runs. At least twice in five games now, the Yankees can expect to win without needing an eight-run outburst.
That’s no small matter when considering the psyche of a team. Faith in a starting pitcher relaxes the offense, and a relaxed offense is more apt to score runs than one thinking about how desperately they need to compensate for the looming implosion of Phil Hughes.
Now with the offense seemingly finding its groove, dominant outings from Nova don’t seem so necessary. But through their muted month of July, when runs were as scarce as water in the Gobi desert and C.C. Sabathia was but a mirage, the Yankees’ survived because one player, back in May, refused to die.