CLEVELAND -- In a clubhouse full of giant people like pitchers CC Sabathia and Joba Chamberlain, as well as legendary names like Mariano Rivera, it is easy for an unassuming 5-foot-11, 25-year-old named Vidal Nuno to get lost in the shuffle. Where many of his teammates may find it difficult to walk the streets of New York in broad daylight, Nuno waltzed into Progressive Field on a brisk Monday afternoon in Cleveland, and introduced himself to the world by holding one of baseball’s hottest-hitting teams to just three hits in five innings of scoreless work en route to a 7-0 win.
“He did an unbelievable job,” New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi said of Nuno. “Considering he hasn’t pitched in a while, his pitch count has not been up in a while, and to give us five shutout innings, it’s really an unbelievable job.”
Once left to revive his fledgling career in the Frontier League, Nuno used the ranks of the Yankees’ farm system to vault himself to his present-day position. After pitching well for Single-A Tampa and Double-A Trenton in 2012, Nuno took an invite to Yankees camp in 2013 and walked away with the James P. Dawson Award for being the most outstanding rookie. Assigned to Triple-A Scranton, all it took was an injury to Yankees starting pitcher Ivan Nova before Nuno tossed three scoreless innings of relief, and then a win in his major league debut as a starter.
A storybook run, Nuno became the first left-handed pitcher on the Yankees not named “Sabathia” or “Pettitte” to take the mound as a starter since Kei Igawa did so in May of 2008. Potentially the most surprising aspect of Nuno’s game is that while he may not have the track record or dominating physique of some of his peers, his poise and confidence -- at least on this day -- was right there with any pitcher to don the pinstripes.
“It just comes natural,” said Nuno of his demeanor on the mound. “It’s all about having fun, and just having my command.
“I took everything from the bullpen and transferred it out to the game. It was fun.”
Though he would be limited to only five innings of work, Nuno stifled a Cleveland team that entered Monday afternoon as one the game’s hottest in terms of offense. Since April 29, the Indians lead the league in home runs (23) and have the highest OPS of any team in baseball year-to-date. Nevertheless, Nuno coupled an educational throwing program with the chemistry built with 24-year-old catcher Austin Romine and turned in a masterpiece debut. He would fire a first-pitch strike to open the game, and walked off the mound in the bottom of the fifth having struck out two-time All-Star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, stranding two of his teammates on base.
The Yankees would never look back.
“[The first-pitch strike] got the rush out of me,” said Nuno. “It pretty much was, ‘Let’s get after it’ after the first hitter -- let’s get down to business.”
Nuno credits a lot of his early success to Romine, whom the pitcher says knows him “inside and out.” The two up-and-comers worked diligently with pitching coach Larry Rothschild to put together a plan on how to attack one of the game’s most balanced lineups. The result was an outing that will not only be remembered forever by Nuno, but will allow the Yankees to head home after a long road trip, bullpen fully in tact.
Every pitch for Nuno is meaningful. When it became evident that Girardi wanted to limit his pitch count to roughly 75 (he would throw 89), each pitch had to be a calculated piece of the puzzle that, if not immediately leading to an out, would set up would-be hitters to ultimately leave them in his carefully crafted wake.
In a crucial moment in the bottom of the fifth inning, with the Indians threatening, it was Romine who went out to the mound to talk to his pitcher. Typically, Nuno lets Romine call the game plan, executing what the two set out to accomplish prior to the start of the game. It was this moment, however, when Nuno’s confidence took over and the left-hander verbally shook off his playcaller.
“He wanted something down in the zone, a breaking ball,” Nuno said. “I told him that we should go with the heater away and that I would pinpoint it, and I just did that.”
That he did, as Cabrera was left frozen -- the bat on his shoulders and the 25-year-old pitcher casually walking off the mound having finished the job he had set out to fulfill. For an athlete to be playing one of the most scrutinized positions on one of the most scrutinized teams, Nuno certainly did not have the mannerisms of a player who just accomplished what he had. Given his path, it can be assumed that the Californian has been humbled by his past, knowing that nothing is guaranteed and that -- just like each pitch -- every game is meaningful.
There is no telling what will happen to Nuno as the Yankees’ rotation will start to take shape. David Phelps may have cemented the fifth starter spot with a one-run outing against the Indians in Game 1 of Monday's doubleheader. Nova, whose injury was a stepping stone for Nuno, should be back in time as he continues to recover from an inflamed triceps. He was eligible to return on May 11. But for now, Nuno can take the official box score from Monday afternoon’s game knowing that he won his major league debut for one of the best teams in baseball. For now, it’s all about having fun.