TAMPA, Fla. -- New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi still won't say what had been decreed over the winter, and what has been obvious for most of spring training, that Ivan Nova will be the No. 4 starter in his pitching rotation.
But what he couldn't bring himself to say in words he communicated with a nod of the head minutes after the Yankees had completed a 6-4 win over the Astros on Friday night at Steinbrenner Field.
"We'll have a lot more information for you tomorrow," Girardi said. "I have to talk to my players first. But ... "
The manager then nodded his head and smiled that tight little grin of his, and that was that. Now there are four: CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes and Nova, who worked six not pretty but gritty innings, allowing three hits and two earned runs.
By Saturday, the Yankees will add a fifth, either Freddy Garcia or Bartolo Colon, and the second-place finisher in that debate will wind up in the bullpen as the long man, ready to step into the starter's role if the other should falter. The white smoke seen above The Boss after the game was the result of Fireworks Night, not the long-awaited decision on the fifth starter.
And either here in extended spring training or at Triple-A Scranton, Kevin Millwood, signed earlier in the day to a minor league deal, will be waiting in the wings should his turn ever come.
"We're getting there," Girardi said.
So is Nova, who Friday night was allowed to do something the Yankees were reluctant to allow him to even try last year -- work his way out of trouble. With two out in the third inning, Nova walked the No. 9 hitter, Carlos Corporan. Then, he allowed a single to Michael Bourn. On his next pitch, both runners advanced when he bounced a curve past Russell Martin. And on the pitch after that, he plunked Clint Barmes on the shoulder to load the bases.
When Hunter Pence singled to drive in two runs, cutting the Yankees' lead to 3-2, it seemed as if Nova had gone supernova, about to explode spectacularly in his final appearance of the spring.
"Last year, an inning like that, they take me out of the game," Nova said. "So I was thinking, I got to take it one pitch at a time. I think that was important for me."
After a visit from pitching coach Larry Rothschild, Nova got himself together and got Jason Michaels to bounce into a force play to end the inning. Over his final three innings, he held the Astros hitless, walking one and striking out two.
"His stuff was not extremely sharp tonight," Girardi said. "But I thought he battled and figured out a way to get through six innings. That's actually maturing and that's a good thing, because you're not always gonna have great stuff and be sharp and you gotta figure out how to do it."
That was the Yankees' final reservation about Nova, his inability to escape danger once he got into it, a problem Rothschild thought might be linked to a young player's lack of full confidence in his stuff. And Nova acknowledged that his main project this offseason was to work on his own confidence, a task the Yankees believe he has accomplished.
"I knew they had confidence in me because last year I had a couple of games where I didn't pitch really good and they didn't send me down," he said. It could not have hurt his confidence to find out when he arrived in the clubhouse Friday afternoon that Sergio Mitre, his neighbor on the wall of pitchers and one of the four contenders for the last three spots on the pitching staff, had been traded to the Brewers.
"It made me feel good," Nova said. "I don't want him to leave. He's a good teammate. But now there are three spots open."
Actually, two. Nova earned his spot later that night, and not even Joe Girardi could keep it a secret any longer.
Girardi virtually admitted that Eric Chavez had also made the team. Chavez, whose history of injury has been a concern for the Yankees and who had been sidelined for a couple of days with a calf strain, returned with a vengeance, homering in the second, singling in the fourth and doubling in the sixth. His spring average now stands at .421. Asked if he was still worried about whether Chavez would remain healthy throughout spring training, Girardi smiled and said, "He looks pretty good, doesn't he?" ... Rafael Soriano pitched the seventh and allowed a run on a triple by Chris Johnson and a double by J.B. Shuck. After Soriano struck out Corporan, Girardi replaced him with Boone Logan for the final out, because, Girardi said, Soriano is scheduled to pitch again in Saturday's game against the Pirates. ... Brett Gardner, batting leadoff again, hit a rare home run off Nelson Figueroa in the second. Rare for Gardner that is, not Figueroa. ... Manny Banuelos gets the start Saturday against the Pirates (1:05 p.m., YES/WCBS-AM 880). RHP Kevin Correia goes for the Bucs.
Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com.