For the past few weeks, Ivan Nova has been bouncing around the clubhouse, itching to return to the mound.
Nova had been eager to show that he could pitch similar to the way that placed him in last year’s AL Rookie of the Year conversation.
He got his chance Saturday and in possibly his biggest career regular season start, Nova delivered a strong performance. He threw 85 outstanding pitches and pitched one batter into the seventh inning during a 5-3 victory over the Rays.
“I feel really good,” Nova said. “I was getting crazy in the past couple of days and I was ready for this moment to be back on the mound.”
“Everything,” manager Joe Girardi said in describing what he liked about Nova’s outing. “His fastball was outstanding. His curveball was really good today. His location and quick outs [were good]. If you think about it, he was on an about 80-pitch count and got into the seventh inning and it seems like before this little layoff he was struggling with command.”
Nova allowed two runs and four hits. The only run he actually allowed was a solo home run to Evan Longoria in the sixth. The other run he was charged with came when Joba Chamberlain allowed a two-run single to pinch hitter Luke Scott in the seventh.
Nonetheless, it was a successful return for Nova, who tipped his cap to the fans who gave him a standing ovation for a performance that was more on par with this June when he allowed six earned runs in 35 2/3 innings.
“It was better,” Nova said of the difference in stuff from his slump in July to Saturday. “I was throwing strikes. My fastball wasn’t too effective over the plate like it was today. I felt that was really good and I was getting ahead in the count.”
“It was huge,” catcher Chris Stewart said of Nova’s fastball command. “We were getting ahead down and away and it wasn’t just away, it was moving down and away. The combination of those two was tough for the opponent. He was able to do it effectively and get ahead of guys, throw his curveballs down in the zone where it needed to be and he did well.”
Perhaps the biggest indicator of his improved stuff came during a span of 19 hitters following Desmond Jennings’ leadoff single in the first and Longoria’s 12th home run. During that stretch, Nova allowed just one hit, recorded six of his strikeouts and got ahead of 13 hitters.
“I thought Nova was great,” Alex Rodriguez said. “That’s the Nova we expected to see. He’s kind of spoiled us over the last few years with his fastball, good control of both slides of the plate, throwing his curveball for strike one and a consistent slider. It was good [to see].”
After getting beat with his fastball on Longoria’s home run, pitching coach Larry Rothchild came out to chat with Nova. It was surprising for Nova since he had been cruising through his return but it was a conversation designed to make sure the Rays did not inflict anymore damage.
“We just wanted to make sure he didn’t let up too much, that he didn’t get too down on himself after giving up the home run,” Stewart said. “In the past he’d get to that point and it seems like there was a little letdown and he’d kind of lose it from there. We just wanted to make sure he stayed on top of his game and stay confident.”
Nova’s return also featured eight strikeouts, his most in a home start since getting 12 against the Reds in a loss on May 19. He fanned Jennings and B.J. Upton twice while also striking out Ben Zobrist with a man on base in the opening inning. He also struck out Longoria in the fourth and Ryan Roberts with a runner in scoring position in the fifth.
“Talking before the game, he knew what he needed to do,” Stewart said. “He knew what made him successful to begin with. We had that game plan and he carried it through.”
Nova’s strong outing gave the Yankees their sixth win in their last 10 games or their 12th in their last 29 depending on your outlook. It also came less than 24 hours after CC Sabathia’s unsettling outing.
Supporting Nova were back-to-back home runs in the second off James Shields. Curtis Granderson hit a two-run home run and Eduardo Nunez followed with his first home run of 2012.
The decisive run though was scored in the fifth without the long ball. Temporary leadoff hitter Ichiro singled with two outs, stole second and scored when Derek Jeter fouled off four balls and singled up the middle.
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.