There is a sentiment within and around the Yankees that if they are to make the playoffs, they need CC Sabathia to pitch like CC Sabathia. This is a rather short-sighted point of view. The Yankees have five starting pitchers, and like most staffs, those pitchers can be easily ranked from one through five; the names shouldn’t matter. Contending teams need an ace, a pitcher they can count on to win big games down the stretch, and the Yankees happen to have two of them — Hiroki Kuroda and Ivan Nova. Their third and fourth starters are Andy Pettitte and Phil Hughes, which, in the event that the Yankees make the playoffs, would leave Sabathia as a left-handed specialist out of the bullpen.
So instead of worrying about Sabathia, we should instead be thankful for Nova. He was on the mound for the Yankees on Saturday night, and he did what aces do: he shut down the opposition to give his team a much-needed victory.
With bad news bookending the game (the Yankees pulled Derek Jeter from the lineup to rest his ailing leg and announced that he’d likely miss a game or two, and ESPN reported after the game that Alex Rodríguez will be suspended on Monday through the end of 2014), the nine innings in between were a welcome respite.
Nova took a few innings to find his groove, but he was able to work out of minor trouble early on. He gave up consecutive singles with one out in the first inning, then yielded a lead-off double in the second, but in each case he emerged unscathed. After that second-inning double off the bat of Alexi Amarista, Nova retired fifteen consecutive Padres and never really broke a sweat. Only one of those fifteen batters was even able to work a three-ball count; that was Chase Headley in the sixth, who then struck out on the next pitch.
The problem for the Yankees, though, was that San Diego starting pitcher Tyson Ross was just as good. Ross set down the first thirteen hitters he faced, and did so in fairly dominant fashion, striking out seven of them with a strong fastball, a quality changeup, and a devastating slider. Lyle Overbay broke the spell with a clean single in the fifth, but it wasn’t until the seventh inning that the Yankees were able to make any headway against Ross.
Alfonso Soriano lifted a fly ball that floated just over the infield and landed just in front of center fielder Amarista for a single. Soriano had given up on the play immediately and jogged to first, costing himself a double, but Curtis Granderson erased that minor mistake two pitches later when he launched a home run to right field to give the Yankees a 2-0 lead. Consecutive walks to Overbay and Eduardo Núñez pushed Ross from the game, but the Yanks weren’t able to do any more damage that inning.
Will Venable doubled to lead off the Padres’ seventh, but once again Nova simply bowed his neck against the yoke. He struck out Jedd Gyorko on three pitches, got Amarista to ground out, then followed his first walk of the game with his eighth strike out to end the threat. He had only thrown 85 pitches on the night, but he was done. His final line was impressive (7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 8 K), but it was really just more of what we’ve come to expect from him. Over his last five starts — a significant sample size — Nova’s numbers look like this: 38 IP, 25 H, 7 R, 10 BB, 37 K, 1.66 ERA, 0.92 WHIP. If it looks like an ace, and walks like an ace, it must be an ace. He’s 3-2 over those five games, but only because the Yankees managed just a total of five hits in his two losses.
David Robertson pitched an efficient eighth inning, the Yankees scored another run in the ninth with a Granderson single, stolen base, and an RBI single from Jayson Nix, and then it was time for Mariano Rivera.
Each of Rivera’s appearances now are bitter sweet. It’s as if you’re eating the most delicious piece of chocolate cake that you’ve ever had. Even as you’re delighting in each heavenly bite, you can’t help but feel a bit of sadness as you watch the piece on your plate growing smaller and smaller. And so it is with Rivera. How many more times will we get to see him take the mound? Fifteen? Twenty? Each one now is precious.
As chants of “Mar-ee-ah-no!” were filtering down from the San Diego crowd, the Great One produced another masterpiece. Venable and Gyorko were retired on fly balls that wouldn’t have scared anyone in a slow-pitch softball game, and Amarista struck out swinging on three pitches. All three men will tell their grandchildren about those at bats.
[Photo Credit: Denis Poroy/Getty Images]