Ivan Nova’s Tuesday night began reasonably well.
He needed just six pitches to get through the first inning and then watched his teammates take a five-run lead.
Then things quickly spiraled downhill. When it was over, Nova turned in a cringe-worthy performance by allowing a career-high nine earned runs and 10 hits in five innings in an 11-5 loss to the Orioles, who are suddenly 5 1/2 games out of first place in the AL East.
Nova’s worst performance of his career came just hours after the Yankees declined to add a starting pitcher to a rotation that features four 10-game winners. Nova is in that group, but his 4.53 earned run average is the highest among the double-digit winners and he has now made four straight games without a victory.
“He had no fastball command, inconsistent slider and an inconsistent curveball,” manager Joe Girardi said. “He worked his tail end off to get two outs and two strikes after giving up two hits. He threw a slider that didn’t break and it kind of snowballed after that.”
Nova’s problems did not boil down to just one of his pitches. It was all of his pitches in a seven-run second inning, which may have been due to a lack of focus, which sent him on his way to being 1-3 with a 5.09 ERA in his last eight starts since June 17.
“He better get it back or it’s going to happen a lot,” Girardi said. “You can’t lose focus. You’re a major league pitcher and you have to be able to put things behind you. When you make a bad pitch, you have to be able to get the next guy out.”
Nova did not think it was lack of concentration or focus. Instead, he attributed his second bad start in two monthsagainst the Orioles to poor luck even as he felt the stuff was there.
“I just had a bad day, but I don’t feel that way,” Nova said. “I feel really good. I just got hit. I feel like I had command of my pitches. I just got hit.
“It was a bad day; [I had] bad luck. It was a tough day for me. I threw a lot of good sliders good curveballs and they get base hits.”
He gave up a leadoff single to Adam Jones on his slider. Matt Wieters moved Jones to second by lining a fastball to right field.
Following consecutive strikeouts, Nova left a 0-2 slider up in the zone for Mark Reynolds, who promptly sent it down the left field line to score Jones. The problems continued as Omar Quintanilla sent a fastball up the middle that drove in two more.
After failing to get the third out with his fastball and slider, Nova turned to his curveball but that failed him as well. Nick Markakis lined a curveball to right field and Chris Davis crushed a 0-1 curveball just over the left-center field wall for his first career grand slam to give Baltimore a 7-5 lead.
Nova threw 32 pitches in the decisive inning. The Orioles went 5-for-7 with men on base in the second and 7-for-14 overall during the five innings. That was a reverse of Nova’s numbers with men on base coming into the game as he had allowed a .240 batting average.
“That’s something that he’s been really good at this year, not letting things unravel,” Girardi said. “Tonight it did for whatever reason. He just didn’t have good stuff tonight. He had no fastball command, his breaking balls were inconsistent. He seemed to throw one good one and you saw him throw a put-away slider to [Wilson] Betemit in that inning and then he throws one that backs up to Reynolds at 0-2 and that’s the difference.
“I can’t tell you why it happened, but he’s been really good in those situations. You can talk about he gets runners on base but the positive thing is when runners have been on, most of the year he’s been really good, but for whatever reason he wasn’t tonight.”
Before Nova’s worst start sent the Yankees to their ninth loss in 12 games and dropped their lead to 5 1/2 games, things started out promising. They had six hits in the first and interspersed Robinson Cano’s three-run home run with four singles and a double.
After that though they went 2-for-13 off Baltimore starter Chris Tillman and the closest thing to a rally occurred in the seventh when they had two on and one out. That quickly dissipated as Nick Swisher grounded out and Raul Ibanez struck out.
“We’re not playing well, there’s no doubt about it,” Girardi said. “We’ve been through streaks before where we haven’t played well and we bounced back and that’s all we need to do.”
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.