Ivan Nova had not thrown a curveball to a major-league hitter in the three weeks since getting Ike Davis out in a relief stint on May 29 against the Mets.
So perhaps it’s not surprising he was a bit apprehensive about throwing one even as three of the first four hitters reached and Tampa Bay scored a run while getting good swings on his fastball.
Nova took the loss as the Yankees scored only once during his 6 2/3 innings, but he did turn in his best outing of the season during Sunday’s 3-1 loss to the Rays. The game was decided on James Loney’s two-run single off Boone Logan with two outs in the seventh.
Nova allowed three runs and seven hits in his first start since injuring his elbow in the third inning against Toronto on April 26. He got beat on his fastball in the opening inning but started using it more and it resulted in six of his seven strikeouts, including two against potential tying runs in Yunel Escobar and Matt Joyce in the fifth.
“It was good,” Nova said. “My curveball was good today. When I have it I can throw it any time.”
“He left a couple of fastballs up,” manager Joe Girardi said. “After that he was really good.”
Nova appeared to tire as he reached the 100-pitch mark and was unable to finish the seventh as he hit Desmond Jennings and Zobrist with pitches. After Shawn Kelley loaded the bases by walking Longoria, Logan gave up a two-run single to Loney.
Nova was making a spot start after pitching well in Triple-A and his return was due to Tuesday’s rainout against the Dodgers. He entered with a 5.16 ERA and would have lowered it to 4.30 had Logan not allowed the two inherited runs.
Despite taking the loss, Nova likely put himself back in the conversation to stay in the rotation. The Yankees sent him down because they didn’t want him to sit idle as a long reliever. The team has not make a decision on whether he will have another start soon after he spent three weeks in the International League working on consistency.
“You don’t want to get sent down, but sometimes it helps,” Nova said.
The decision could hinge on how Phil Hughes performs this week. Hughes struggled in the nightcap of Wednesday’s doubleheader and will take a 5.09 ERA into Thursday’s start against Texas.
“You see the way he pitched today,” Girardi said. “He made it real hard.”
When asked if he should stay in the majors, Nova said, “I gotta say yes.”
The Yankees actually faced a nearly identical situation to Saturday when pinch hitter Vernon Wells hit a bases-clearing double in the seventh against hard-throwing left-hander Jake McGee. This time, he didn’t see a fastball and flied out on a first-pitch fastball for the second out of the seventh.
The only Yankees to generate much offense were Brett Gardner and rookie Zoilo Almonte. They were a combined 5-for-8 while the rest of the lineup was 2-for-24.
The loss dropped the Yankees to 1-23 when scoring two runs or fewer.
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.