Ivan Nova fuels October optimism

NEW YORK -- If you're not in yet, you should be.

Enough pooh-poohing Ivan Nova. He's not a blip, an unknown commodity. Let's face it: He's a force, the New York Yankees' No. 2 starter if the playoffs opened today.

Yeah, yeah. Nova's a rookie and doesn't have any postseason experience.

Who cares? He can pitch. Even better -- he simply wins. His latest victory enabled the Yankees to reclaim first place in the American League East from the Boston Red Sox, who lost on Friday night.

If Nova can simply continue doing what he has done, the Yankees would have enough starting pitching -- especially with their lineup and bullpen -- to win the World Series.

In the Yankees' 3-2 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays at Yankee Stadium on Friday, Nova pitched seven innings of three-hit ball. He gave up two runs in the first, then just one hit in the final six innings of work. The Yankees' defense, for sure, was stellar behind him.

But Nova isn't just lucky, a fraud. Nova -- who upped his record to 15-4 and lowered his ERA to 3.89 -- isn't winning simply because the Yankees score a million runs for him.

New York hasn't seen a rookie stud pitcher like this since Doc Gooden went 17-9 for the Mets in 1984. Of course, Nova doesn't have the strikeout magic that Gooden had. But he gets outs and wins.

Nova, just 24, is now undefeated in his last 12 starts, going 11-0. The last Yankees rookie to put on an impressive win streak was Atley Donald. He won 12 in a row back in 1939.

"I'm not surprised," said a confident Nova. "I know what I can do. I'm not stopping here. I have four more starts. I have to stay hungry and keep winning."

Let's also not forget that Nova went back to the minors for a month. Since he was recalled from Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes Barre on July 30, Nova has won all eight of his starts. Opponents entered Friday night's game batting just .265 against him. He has allowed only 12 home runs in 23 starts.

When Nova pitches, the Yankees just seem to win. In fact, the Yankees are 18-5 in games started by Nova, according to Elias. The only pitcher with a better mark is Philadelphia's Roy Halladay. The Phillies are 21-6 when Halladay starts.

"The best pitchers in the game don't necessarily do that," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said of Nova's streak. "It doesn't happen very often, but he's on a great roll and we want to keep him there."

Sure, most believed the Yankees wouldn't have enough pitching to compete for a title, especially when A.J. Burnett failed to pick up the slack after Andy Pettitte retired. To make matters worse, they also lost 18-game winner Phil Hughes to injury. He's back, but not the same. All of it spelled doom.

Just Cy Young candidate CC Sabathia and a lackluster supporting cast, right?

But Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon were able to step in and pitch well enough to keep the Yankees in the race. In reality, it has been Nova who has made the Yankees a first-place team.

Nova has been a rock, a can-count-on starter the Yankees needed after the seams all but came a loose on their rotation.

"He learned a lot last year," Girardi said. "And he learned a lot in the first month this year.

"I think he's taken that and used it and used it to learn how to relax in situations and he understands what he needs to do. He's learned fairly quickly."

And Nova will be able to pitch on the big stage, with America watching. Coming into Friday's game, Nova allowed opponents to hit just .256 with runners in scoring position. Eight of his 15 wins have come on the road. Best of all, he doesn't give up leads. Nova is now 16-0 in 25 career starts in which he pitched with a lead. You want that guy on the mound in October.

"Teammates love that," Girardi said of that impressive stat. "That's how you become a real winner as a starting pitcher. They talk about all the great ones, when they get the lead, they are able to shut the other team down. He's very young. He still has things to learn as a pitcher, but he's making great strides."

On Friday night, Nova got hit hard to start the game and gave up two runs to the Jays. But he settled down and started dealing. The Jays came into the game swinging hot bats, scoring 26 runs on 42 hits in their three-game set in Baltimore. Nova wasn't having any of that and slammed the door, allowing just one hit in the final six innings.

"He had a great breaking ball," Jays interim manager Don Wakamatsu said. "He got ahead with it and bounced it when he had to. He was really the key to the game."

It's clear now that Nova can also be a key in the postseason.