Ivan Nova had nothing last night in a game that was as important for the Yankees as any third game of the season could be. However, he kept his composure and got four huge double play balls, which helped the Yankees avoid the embarrassment of a season opening sweep by the Houston Astros.
“I knew I didn't have my best stuff today," said Nova, via Mark Feinsand of the New York Daily News. "I had to find a way to win the game, to keep the team in the game. Thank God I made the good pitches when I needed to and we won the game. "
A couple of seasons ago Nova would have been out of this game very early on. He has come a long way since he famously claimed that he was was the best pitcher in the world about two seasons ago after winning his 15th consecutive decision at Fenway Park.
Nova got into big trouble early in the game, and it felt like it was going to be another disaster for the Yankees. He had already let up a run after Yangervis Solarte failed to throw home on a ground ball to prevent a run and the bases were still loaded with one out.
Yankees pitching coach Larry Rosthchild came to the mound and gave Nova some tough love. The younger and cockier version of Nova might not have taken that well, but he responded by getting a double play to get out of the inning on the very next pitch.
Nova allowed 13 baserunners over his 5 2/3 innings, including five walks and hitting Jason Castro twice with curveballs. He threw 48 strikes and 41 balls, which is definitely not what he was looking for.
Nova had absolutely no feel for his curve, and he wasn't blowing his four-seam fastball by anyone, so he had to get through the game relying on his sinker. He was able to do that by getting those four double play grounders and only allowing one extra-base hit.
“When you don’t have, say, two pitches working for you – I only had one today, which was my sinker – and you have an opportunity to go for a strikeout, I knew my curveball wasn't as good as it’s been, so I decided to go with the sinker to try to get the double play," said Nova. "When you get the double plays, it makes you feel good."
In addition to not being able to locate any of his pitches, Nova was not missing any bats, as he only forced one swing and miss the whole night and only got one strikeout. He was probably helped by the fact that Houston is such a young team, and they kept going after his sinker. However, it was still huge for Nova that he got through the game without his best stuff and got an important win for the Yankees.
Nova relying on his sinker speaks to how much he has developed as a pitcher. He came up with the Yankees in 2011 relying on it, as he only struck out 5.33 batters per nine innings, but he had a 52.7 percent ground ball rate and went 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA.
However, Nova added a slider to his repertoire in 2012 to try to get more strikeouts. He struck out 8.08 batters per nine innings in 2012, but his ground ball rate ball rate dropped to 45.6 percent, and he allowed 28 home runs.
Nova was getting more strikeouts, but his pitches were catching far too much of the plate, which led to his 5.02 ERA in 2012. He scrapped the slider last season after a rough start and went back to using mostly using his fastball, sinker and curve.
That combination led to Nova going 5-4 with a 2.78 ERA over the second half of last season and working himself back into the future plans of the Yankees. According to FanGraphs, Nova's curve was worth 4.5 runs above league average, which was 12th in MLB.
Even after a spectacular second half of last season, Nova took nothing for granted as he entered this season. He insisted all spring training that he was pitching for a spot in the rotation, even though his spot was all but guaranteed.
That was the first sign of growth for him and his start last night was another one. His maturation as a pitcher and as a person could help him have a great season once he finds his stuff.