A week ago, Ivan Nova stood at his locker in Anaheim and expressed frustration. He had just picked up his sixth win, but was disappointed with his 5.60 earned run average.
“It tells you he has an understanding of what needs to get done and he wasn’t kidding himself,” pitching coach Larry Rothchild said. “Sometimes with young pitchers they will believe it but he knew.
“He wasn’t throwing the ball well and making the pitches he should. That’s part of making the adjustments and if you don’t feel like you need to do it then you’re not going to do it. He knew after the game, he needed to make the adjustments.”
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Those were Rothchild’s words after Nova allowed one run and four hits over eight-plus innings in a 4-1 victory over the Rays.
“I think it’s important because he was somewhat frustrated with things that were happening, some of the home runs that he had given up, at times making some mistakes with his fastball,” manager Joe Girardi said. “He just went to work, said I need to do better and took it upon himself and you like to see that as well.”
Nova turned in the performance after getting pep talks from teammates Robinson Cano and Andy Pettitte. Cano told Nova that he had to pitch better, while Pettitte came into the clubhouse after his final pitch Tuesday and simply said to Nova that it was his turn to pitch well.
“I got to step up,” Nova said. “I got to do better, especially when everyone is pitching well.”
“That makes you happy that guys like that want you to do well.”
Nova did more than just pitch well. He was locked in using all four of his pitches and at times looking like he had no-hit stuff.
Nova allowed two hits through eight innings and two more in the ninth.
He allowed a leadoff single to Desmond Jennings, a one-out double to Sean Rodriguez while cruising with a shutout through eight. He allowed consecutive triples to Jennings and B.J. Upton in the ninth before exiting for a standing ovation.
“I watched him go through the second and I thought his off-speed was pretty good tonight; his curveball and his slider [were also good],” Girardi said. “He was locating the fastball and he looks pretty good.”
Nova followed the leads of Phil Hughes (complete game) and Pettitte (10 strikeouts) with a sterling performance of his own. It might have been the finest in his brief time as a major league starting pitcher. It marked the second time he pitched eight innings and sixth time he made it beyond seven.
Over the eight innings, his worst pitch was a 1-0 fastball that Jennings lined into right field and his second worst-pitch was a 1-1 fastball that Rodriguez lined into right field. The other two bad pitches were a first-pitch fastball to Jennings and a 1-1 fastball to Upton that ended Nova’s night.
In between hits, Nova’s 103 pitches were thrown with a similar clinical precision to Pettitte 24 hours earlier.
He might have maintained the shutout if he did not go out for the ninth, but Nova had done enough up to that point that the Yankees did not have anyone warming up. Rafael Soriano would get the final three outs for his eighth save.
Among his achievements was erasing Jennings on an inning-ending double play in the first, allowing just three other runners until the ninth and turning into a ground ball machine that accounted for 13 outs on the ground.
Nova improved to 4-0 lifetime against the Rays and also tied CC Sabathia for the team lead with his seventh victory. Unlike some of his previous six wins, which were based on one of the highest amounts of run support in the majors, this one was all based Nova’s stellar performance.
“He’s a young pitcher,” Rothchild said. “He’s still feeling his way. You don’t become a solid major league pitcher on one good season. You go through some bumps in the road. Every young pitcher does it. It comes at different times. It’s a normal process. It’s a learning process, but the important thing is you come out at the right end of it.
“He had command over both breaking balls,” Girardi said. “He pitched in very effectively to right-handers and to left-handers. He was ahead in the count it seemed most of the night and allowed his defense to do some work.”
Since he pitched so well, Nova did not need his usual run support.
The Yankees did little off Alex Cobb most of the night, but scored two runs on their first two hits as Mark Teixeira hit a solo home run in the second and Robinson Cano did the same in the fourth. They added a pair in the eighth on doubles by Nick Swisher and Eric Chavez.
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.