“What I don’t understand, is how it gets into your shoes…” And to illustrate his confusion, Yankee ace Ivan Nova gently pulled his left cleat off his foot and poured from it half a glass of champagne before offering it to an amused reporter.
Only an hour earlier the Yankees had put the finishing touches on their 29th world championship, sweeping the defending champion Chicago Cubs, but it was already tempting to install them as favorites in 2016, 2017, and years to come. A quick survey of the locker room revealed one of the most balanced teams ever assembled.
In one corner of the room sat third baseman Alex Rodríguez and his 761 career home runs. For much of September they had hung around his neck like the links in Marley’s chain, weighing him down and making him look old and slow as he suffered through the first homerless month of his career, but he had hit two home runs in this fall classic and was talking openly now about playing “at least two or three more years.”
Next to A-Rod stood the game’s most feared batsman, designated hitter Jesus Montero. Just entering his prime, Montero had hit .327/.411/.601 with 41 home runs in a season expected to earn him his first league MVP award.
But unlike Yankee teams in the past, this group won — and will continue to win — because of its absolutely dominant starting pitching. “We’ve got a guy in CC Sabathia who has upwards of 230 career wins, and he’s basically our fifth starter,” explained manager Jorge Posada. (Sabathia didn’t pitch in this series, but did deliver a key pinch hit to extend an eleventh-inning rally in Game 2.) “We’ve got Nova at the top, followed by Phil Hughes, Manuel Bañuelos, and Dellin Betances. It’s no wonder we won 109 games this season.”
“It’s funny when you look back at it now,” said a typically quiet Brian Cashman. “All you read about four or five years ago was that the Yankees couldn’t develop young arms, but take a look at our rotation. Take a look at the bullpen. Sure, Mo’s still there on the back end, but what about Joba? His ERA was under one for the second year in a row, and we think this might be the year that Rivera actually retires, so Joba will be closing next year.”
Nova, though, was the biggest story. He had been named the Series MVP after shutout wins in Game 1 and Game 4, and it was hard to remember that he had once been a rather lightly-regarded prospect. “It all changed for me that night in Cincinnati…” His eyes seemed to focus somewhere in the distance, and he told the story of his formative game with such vivid detail it was as if it had happened just yesterday.
As the game started out it looked as if it would be another Yankee rout, as Cincinnati starter Travis Wood kept floating pitches into the middle of the strike zone and Yankee hitters kept roping them into the outfield. Nick Swisher led off with a single, and after Curtis Granderson struck out swinging, Mark Teixeira singled, A-Rod followed with a single to score Swisher, Robinson Canó doubled to score Teixeira, Russell Martin drove in A-Rod with a ground out, and Andruw Jones singled in Canó. And just like that, the Yankees had a 4-0 lead.
Nova squeezed a bit of bubbly out of his sock and said, “That first inning, it just might’ve been the most important inning I’ve ever pitched. I only threw ten pitches, but I’ll never forget them.”
“Stubbs was the leadoff hitter, and I started him with an easy fastball for strike one. After he took a curve for a ball, I went back to the fastball and he hit a line drive into center field for a base hit. Brandon Phillips was next, and I went all fastballs with him, but he was able to fight one off and line it to right, pushing Stubbs around to third. This was a moment when things would’ve exploded on me in the past. I’d have overthrown a curve ball or opened up on a fastball looking for the strikeout, and suddenly they’d put four or five runs on the board, but suddenly there was a voice in my head — it sounded an awful lot like David Cone — telling me to ignore the runner on third. So instead of muscling up, I took something off of a fastball to Joey Votto and got him to ground into a double play. The run scored, but I had avoided the big inning. Jay Bruce came up next, and I fooled him with a changeup. He bounced the ball back to me, and the inning was over. To be honest, the game was over.”
Over the next seven innings Nova only allowed two singles. His line on the night was dominant: 8 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 7 K. Of his 24 recorded outs, all but three came via strikeout or ground out. “Sure, the manager kind of bungled things in the end, pulling me after eight innings even though I had only thrown 105 pitches, but Mariano finally came in and did what he always does, and we won, 5-3.”
Nova paused, then quickly shook his head as one does when waking from a dream. “Was that really four years ago?” He smiled. “Impossible.”
With that he jumped up and chased after bench coach Paul O’Neill, triggering a second wave of celebration throughout the room. But just as suddenly, everything went quiet. At the far end of the clubhouse, having walked in unannounced, stood Derek Jeter, dressed impeccably in a grey suit and looking for all the world as if he were about to announce a comeback. But he wouldn’t. He shook a few hands and nodded across the room at old friends Posada and Rivera as he walked straight to Nova.
“You looked good out there tonight, kid. But remember, you’ve still got a ways to go before you catch me.” He held up six fingers and smiled, then turned and left.
[Photo Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images]