A little over four years ago I wrote a piece here imagining a world in which Ivan Nova had developed into the Yankees’ ace while CC Sabathia had become the team’s fifth starter and even been sent to the bullpen for the postseason. The year I was imagining was 2015, which seems kind of hard to believe, but that future is now.
Has Nova become the ace I once imagined? Prior to his elbow surgery he had had his moments of brilliance, but he never looked like a consistent frontline starter. Now, however, he’s been cast as the savior for a rotation that’s been consistent only in its unpredictability. (In fact, the most dependable starter, Adam Warren, was shipped out to the bullpen on Tuesday, but more on that later.)
Nova sent hopes soaring with his debut outing last week, posting seven scoreless innings with stuff just as electric as we remembered, but things were different on Tuesday night in Anaheim. He found trouble early, giving up two singles in the first inning before getting a strikeout from Albert Pujols and a ground out from Erick Aybar to escape that jam, then loading the bases in the second before wriggling free from that one.
The Yankee offense got started in the top of the second when Mark Teixeira launched a towering fly to left center field for his 19th homer of the season, which seemed like a promising start. After that, however, the bats on both sides started to collect spiderwebs.
The Yankees were facing Andrew Heaney, who was making just his second major league start. If you’ve been following the Yankees closely over the past fifteen years — and I know you have — you know that rookie pitchers are their Kryptonite. I don’t have the stats to support this, and it may very well be that the stats don’t support this, but my memory tells me that the Yankees always seem to go down meekly when facing pitchers they’ve never seen before. And so it was with Heaney.
He retired the Yankees in order in the first, gave up Teixeira’s homer in the second, yielded a single to Brett Gardner in the third, walked Chase Headley in the fifth, and walked Teixeira in the seventh. And that was it. Thanks to a couple of double plays, Heaney faced only 24 batters in seven innings. He was the one who looked like the future ace.
After Nova’s early struggles, however, he was matching Heaney pitch for pitch. He cruised through the third, fourth, and fifth innings, giving up just a single and a walk and never really breaking a sweat. In the sixth, however, the bubble burst. Pujols turned on Nova’s first pitch of the inning and produced a majestic home run deep into the trees that grow beyond the centerfield fence; two pitches later Erick Aybar followed suit with a shot of his own to center, and suddenly the Angels had a 2-1 lead. Nova would get one out in the inning before Matt Joyce hit a ringing double down the right field line and sent our future ace to the showers.
Adam Warren came in to make his first relief appearance of the season, and guess what? He was good. He skated through the final two innings and change, allowing just a hit and a walk and perhaps a regret or two from Joe Girardi. But we’ll never know about that last part.
For their parts, the Yankee hitters didn’t do much the rest of the way. Didi Gregorius reached on an error with one out in the eighth, but he was quickly erased by a Stephen Drew double play ball, and the top three hitters went down quietly in the ninth. Final score: Angels 2, Yankees 1.
There is good news, however. While the Yankees have forgotten how to win, the rest of the American League East has been sputtering as well, and the Pinstripes have lost no ground in the standings. So that’s something. Nova didn’t get the win, but he pitched well, something most of us probably weren’t counting on this year. He might not be the ace yet, but he’s pitching.
Oh, and here’s one more thing. My son and I will be in the stands instead of on the couch tomorrow afternoon, so things are already looking up!
[Photo Credit: Jae C. Hong/AP Photo]