Joe knows Nova's earned his stripes

NEW YORK -- Yankees manager Joe Girardi has made a point all season of broaching every delicate decision he's had to make -- from Jorge Posada's demotion to Brett Gardner's increasingly stronger claim to the leadoff spot over Derek Jeter -- by consistently saying his guide would be what's best for the ballclub.

And yet, as obvious as it was that young Ivan Nova has earned the right to stay in the Yankees' starting rotation after the way he's pitched this season, Girardi still deserves praise for all but making it official even before Nova and the Yanks beat the Los Angeles Angels 9-3 on Wednesday night. Nova won for the third straight time since returning from a brief stay in the minors and improved to 11-4 overall, giving him the most wins of any rookie in the major leagues.

On his way off the field, the 24-year-old right-hander even got a partial standing ovation, and he tipped his cap to the Yankee Stadium crowd.

"He's been one of our best five guys," Girardi said in his pregame news conference. "The last three months, especially, he's been really, really good for us."

So was Nova still auditioning to keep his job?

"I wouldn't say that," Girardi said.

This was a bit of news all right -- this was Girardi's first real stab at addressing the latest Big Question dangling over this Yankees team. A night earlier, A.J. Burnett had changed his hair but not his life with yet another of his typically schizophrenic performances in a loss to the Angels. Girardi was pelted with so many follow-up questions about who was out of the mix if Nova is in that he finally joked, "This is what Cash [Yanks general manager Brian Cashman] talks about when you try to peel the onion layer by layer seven times: 'What's my rotation going to be?'"

Then Girardi didn't really answer the question.

The odd man out could be Phil Hughes, who skipped a start this week after pitching an inning of relief against the Red Sox.

But it should be Burnett. In a perfect world -- or again, using Girardi's standard of fielding the best possible team -- Burnett would go to the 'pen. But he almost surely won't. And it's not just because the Yankees owe him $33 million over the next two seasons. One of the perverse perks of being a head case like Burnett is it can make your manager feel even more skittish about doing anything that could contribute to more goofy thoughts pingponging around your head.

With Burnett, there is also the doomsday scenario to consider: If Girardi does yank him from the rotation, does he risk losing him -- gasp -- for-EVER?

Girardi can't say that handcuffs him, of course. He did say he thinks Burnett has the "skill set" to pitch out of the bullpen. But then he also noted he has a few days before Alex Rodriguez returns from the disabled list and he's not ready to commit to how he'll shuffle the roster. (Funny how Girardi's timetable to get back to a five-man rotation accelerated not only because A-Rod is returning, but since Yanks ace CC Sabathia piped up and admitted the other day he's not wild about the six-man carousel.)

"You have to look at all the factors," Girardi said Wednesday. "Sometimes it's not easy to just move one piece and say, 'That's it.' Because you've got to worry about how it affects everything you do. Some guys are maybe a little more suited, if you do decide to move someone to the 'pen, than others. Those are all things we have to take into account.

"Whenever you do something in this game, and whenever you're trying to get the most out of players, how it affects them mentally is also part of it, too. You just can't throw that out. Because last time I checked, we don't plug them in and charge them up. They're not robots. They're human beings, with feelings and emotions. And it's our job to manage that, too."

All that's sure for now is Nova has barged his way in. All the reasons were on display again Wednesday night. Nova's fastball was still hitting 94 mph, but he didn't have his best off-speed stuff. And yet until he pitched his way into a jam in the seventh, the Angels had a hard time even getting the ball out of the infield against him. When the Angels did hit Nova hard, the Yanks made some nice defensive plays behind him.

He ended up scattering five hits and he was charged with three runs. The fact that he didn't notch a strikeout after having 10 in his previous start against Chicago was something that didn't leap out during the game as much as it did later, on the scorecard.

"When you don't have your good stuff and you can do that, that's a sign of maturity," Girardi said.

The way Nova responded after his temporary demotion to the minors was another.

"I think he took it as a challenge and said, 'This is going to be the last time you send me down,'" Girardi said.

Nova later confirmed that was true. He said the demotion sharpened his determination to claw his way back to New York and stay here.

He was happy to hear Girardi made it official even before the game, and he talked about how great it was to hear the crowd yelling for him both before and after the game.

He was asked whether he saw himself in the playoff rotation a month and a half from now, and he again sounded a bit more mature when he said, "I just gotta keep my mind on what I have to do in five days."

But Nova's most telling response came when he was asked, "Do you think you've proved you belong?"

Nova looked back at the reporter and laughed.

"What do you think?" he said.