Nova answers Pettitte's call vs. Rays

NEW YORK -- It turns out Andy Pettitte threw one extra pitch on Tuesday, after he came off the mound.

After New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi took the ball from Pettitte, after he had struck out 10 and gave up just two hits over 7 1/3 innings, Pettitte walked into the Yankees' dugout and fired a fastball at teammate Ivan Nova.

"He was pitching this game, he gets out, and the first thing that he said was, 'Your turn tomorrow,'" Nova said. "That makes you motivated."

Armed with that challenge from his fellow starter, Nova was almost as dominant on Wednesday night, giving up just one run on four hits over eight-plus innings in a 4-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays.

"He had command over both breaking balls, he pitched in very effectively to right-handers and left-handers," Girardi said. "He was ahead in the count it seemed like a lot of the night, and allowed his defense to do some work."

It was quick work, too. In fact, after giving up a single to Desmond Jennings to lead off the game, Nova held the Rays hitless until there was one out in the eighth, when he surrendered a double to Sean Rodriguez.

Nova retired 12 batters in a row at one point, and had just one walk and a hit batter on the night.

After throwing 99 pitches through eight innings, Girardi allowed Nova to start the ninth to try to complete a shutout. But Jennings and B.J. Upton hit back-to-back triples to start the frame, leading to Nova's exit and Rafael Soriano's entrance.

Nova walked off the mound to a standing ovation from the home crowd of 38,370. "I feel more and more better than I've felt the whole year," Nova said. "Today was a really, really good day for me."

It's been a really, really good week for the Yankees so far -- particularly when it comes to starting pitching. Phil Hughes hurled a complete-game four-hitter at Detroit on Sunday, and following an off day, Pettitte was sensational Tuesday against Tampa Bay.

Next up is CC Sabathia, who will face fellow ace David Price in Thursday's series finale.

But the truth is, all five starters have pitched like aces this time around. Even Hiroki Kuroda was strong, despite a no-decision over the weekend.

"I think they compete against each other," Girardi said. "I think they don't wanna be outdone by each other, and that's a real good thing."

Nova entered this game with an attractive record (6-2) but an ugly ERA (5.60), and admitted he felt some pressure to live up to his teammates' standards.

"Gotta step up. Gotta do my job," Nova said. "I gotta be better. Especially when everybody's pitching good, I don't want to be the guy behind."

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild said Nova also has been working on a mechanical adjustment, staying closed on his delivery so the ball doesn't drift over the plate. He was flying open previously, which led to a lack of command on his fastball.

"He just went to work and said, 'I need to do better,'" Girardi said. "He took it upon himself, and you like to see that as well."

The Yankees trail only the Baltimore Orioles in the American League East standings now, leapfrogging past the Rays with Wednesday's victory. They've won five of their past six, and 10 of 13.

The season began with a loss at Tampa Bay on April 6, the first of three straight defeats to start the year. Exactly two months later, on June 6 -- despite several key injuries and a disturbing trend of failing with runners in scoring position -- the Yanks are a season-high seven games over .500 (31-24), just a half-game out of first.

They continue to lead the major leagues in home runs, with two more on Wednesday -- solo shots by Mark Teixeira and Robinson Cano. But that's to no one's surprise.

The question mark with these Yankees, as usual, is starting pitching. And over the past few days, all five starters have had good answers.

Entering the night, the rotation had an ERA of 4.54 on the season -- fourth-worst in the American League. But if fellow 25-year-olds Nova and Hughes have figured it out and continue to perform like this, the Yankees are in good shape -- for the rest of this season, and beyond.

"I think guys are just finding their rhythm, and making better pitches," Girardi said. "The first month was somewhat of a struggle, I thought they picked it up in the month of May, and they've gotten even better in June."

We're only six days in, but so far, so good.