NEW YORK -- The Orioles' home run machine Chris Davis hit it high, but it was unclear if he hit it far enough. It was the ninth inning and Ivan Nova was trying to finish off the greatest pitching performance of his career.
He had a two-run lead and there was a man on. Nova was just two outs away from his first career shutout. It would allow the Yankees to vault the Orioles in the standings and move a little closer to the wild-card leaders.
Davis, with 47 homers on his resume this season, was trying to tie the game. As the ball flew toward the right-field porch, Nova's manager, Joe Girardi, immediately worried. Nova's catcher, Chris Stewart, held his breath.
Nova? Well, he knew he threw a pretty good curveball. Still, he was a bit scared.
In right, veteran Ichiro Suzuki reacted differently than his manager and his teammates. Ichiro, an outfielder who doubles as a comedian, started playing charades. Ichiro made it look like the ball might find its way over the wall. He sort of jockeyed around the warning track before settling under it.
"I was just having fun," Ichiro said through his interpreter. "I'm a professional. It is good to get things exciting."
He added he "absolutely" knew he would make the play.
Stewart, probably the most intellectual ballplayer in the clubhouse, would say later if the curveball was two or three inches higher, maybe Davis has No. 48 and the game is tied. Nova, while afraid of what might happen, noticed some anguish on Davis' face after he made contact and felt the slugger just missed it.
Davis had, and the Yankees have started a run here on this vital 10-game homestand. After their 2-0 win over Baltimore, they will send Andy Pettitte to the mound to try and sweep the Orioles on Sunday. On Monday, they face the last-place White Sox in the first of three before playing four with the first-place Red Sox.
The Yankees are gaining ground in the wild-card race and who is leading them? Well, the new ace of the staff, Ivan Nova, that's who.
Nova is on a run, trying to dispel the notion the Yankees can't develop young pitching and picking up the slack of the ineffective duo of CC Sabathia and Phil Hughes, as well as the suddenly struggling Hiroki Kuroda.
Nova dominated the Orioles on Saturday, allowing just three singles, while striking out five and walking one. Like in 2011 when he used a minor league stint to rise to the No. 2 starter on the big league club, Nova and his manager think he "found himself" when he was hurt earlier this season and when he was sent to the minors.
"He is a different guy now," Girardi said.
His fastball is better, streaking away from lefties, forcing them to hit it into the ground. His curveball is back, sharper and deeper upon arrival. Plus, he has a sinker, giving him the three pitches he needs to help him to pitch into the seventh inning in each of his past seven starts.
Nova loves the month of August. In '11, he went 5-0. This year, he's 4-0. If the Yankees had a playoff game today and Girardi could use any of his starters, Nova might be the pick over Kuroda and Andy Pettitte.
When Nova was rehabbing his inflamed triceps in Tampa, he said he decided to leave his failures behind. In his first four starts of the season, he had a 6.48 ERA before going on the DL. Like in '11, he would spent time in Triple-A, dominating there before returning to the big club ready to succeed.
"I had a chance to really think about what I want to do," Nova said.
Since he returned from the minors in late May, Nova is 7-3 with a 2.23 ERA. He is the guy the Yankees want on the mound now in a big spot. The up-and-down nature of Nova's development is nothing new, according to Girardi, it is just that the win-now environment of the Bronx makes it hard for youngsters to grow.
"This is not a place where you come and get 32 starts and you say, 'No matter what happens you are going to get 32 starts,'" Girardi said. "It is different for young kids who come up here than a lot of other places."
Nova, though, is making it here. Not only that, he is leading the Yankees on a start of what could be an incredible run to the wild card. With Sabathia, Kuroda and Hughes question marks, Nova has been the answer.
"It was exactly what we needed at this point," Derek Jeter said.