Mo's wake-up call to Nova

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Two years ago, Ivan Nova was taking advice from A.J. Burnett. Last year, he was taking it from Mariano Rivera.

I will refrain from making the obvious joke but can't avoid pointing out that in 2011, when Nova and Burnett were as tight as Tom Jones' pants, Nova was 16-4. Last year, when Mo was in his ear, his win total dropped 25 percent (to 12) and his ERA rose nearly a run and a half, to 5.02.

Which is probably why the nature of Mo's conversations with Nova were somewhat different from the ones he had been having with A.J.

"I remember he told me one time, 'You gonna get sent down,'" Nova said. "He told me, 'If you don’t do what you're supposed to do, you’re going to get sent down. You’re not doing everything necessary to stay. You gotta keep doing more than what you’re doing.' When he told me that, I couldn't even look into his eyes."

The message was a strong one, and took a long time to sink in.

In fact, it may still be sinking in. Locked into a battle with David Phelps for the No. 5 starter's job, Nova pitched four pretty good innings against the Rays today, allowing no runs and four hits, although he needed help from his catcher, Francisco Cervelli, who twice threw out runners trying to advance to second on balls in the dirt, and gave up two long, loud outs to center field in the first inning.

Still, Nova says he feels better this spring than he did last season, mostly because of an adjustment to his motion that shortened his delivery on his fastball, suggested by pitching coach Larry Rothschild. Now, Nova said, he uses the same arm motion on all his pitches and he sees a difference.

"I was always a real long-arm pitcher," Nova said before holding his fingers an inch apart. "But I'm like this compared to what I was before. I’m not used to throwing short-armed, so I got to remind myself, remember to stay short, and I'm not sure if I'm doing it right all the time, but I'm feeling good. (Rothschild) says I am, so I gotta believe him.''

Certainly, Nova believed Mo when he said Nova's next destination would be Scranton, where despite his 8-4 record at the time, he spent a month of the 2011 season to make room for Phil Hughes' return from a shoulder injury. "When Mariano Rivera tells you something like that, you gotta take it serious," Nova said. "It's not like talking to Robinson Cano. When Mo tells you you're gonna get sent down, you gotta wake up."

Earlier in the day, Joe Girardi hinted that Nova may have come to camp complacent after his 2011 season, believing his spot in the rotation was secure and waiting for him. This year, Girardi said, "I think he's hungry to earn a job."

By the numbers, Phelps still might have a slight edge -- he is 2-1 with a 0.64 ERA in four starts, having allowed just one run in 14 innings, while Nova is 1-0 with a 1.00 ERA in three starts -- but the final decision may well come down to which of the two is more suited to working out of the bullpen (Phelps) and which of the two is out of options (Nova).

"I’m not thinking about that," Nova said. "I just know that I’m doing my job, I’m pitching well, and I’m enjoying the time I’m having so far."

QUESTION: Who gets your nod for the job so far, Nova or Phelps?