OAKLAND, Calif. — From the time he showed up for spring training, Ivan Nova never wavered.
“I’m a starting pitcher, I’m not a reliever,” Nova said after a morning workout Feb. 11 — seven days before the official report day for pitchers and catchers — at the team’s minor-league complex in Tampa. “But it’s their decision, and whatever they tell me to do, that’s what I gotta do.”
Nova entered spring training in a competition with CC Sabathia for the fifth starter spot, but it was competition in name only.
All things being equal — and they were, as neither pitcher distinguished himself — Sabathia was going to get the job, which he did, sending Nova to the bullpen.
The righthander did not pout and was decent in a relief role, with some good outings and some bad ones, ultimately posting a 5.14 ERA in six appearances.
But when Sabathia landed on the DL — he returned Friday night against the A’s — Nova returned to the only role he ever wanted, and the 29-year-old has been lights-out.
In the Yankees’ 4-1 victory over the A’s on Thursday night, Nova needed only 62 pitches to get through six innings, allowing one run and four hits. He improved to 2-0 with a 1.65 ERA in three starts.
“I felt great,” said Nova, who struck out three, did not walk a batter and watched the A’s pound ball after ball into the ground against his sinker. “I threw another good game for the team and we won the game. This is what you want to do every time out there.”
With struggling Luis Severino on the disabled list with a right triceps strain, Nova’s rotation spot is secure, but if and when the 22-year-old is ready to return, the Yankees could have a decision to make.
Of course, if Nova continues pitching this way, it won’t be difficult at all. Severino (0-6, 7.46 ERA), who was a candidate to be sent to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to work out his issues before he got hurt, simply would end up in the minors when he’s healthy.
“He’s pitching great,” Joe Girardi said of Nova. “We’ll worry about that when the time comes, but I really like what he’s doing.”
Nova, a free agent at season’s end, has been a Yankee his entire career after being signed as a non-drafted free agent in July 2004.
Inconsistency has been the hallmark of his time in pinstripes. He entered 2016 with a 46-33 overall record but had a 4.33 ERA.
Last year was his worst season yet as, coming off Tommy John surgery, he went 6-11 with a 5.07 ERA. Nova lost his spot in the rotation in September, setting up a situation in which he arrived at spring training mostly as an afterthought.
It’s why he said, both during spring training and now, that his motivation isn’t to prove anything to the Yankees.
“I was struggling last year and I have to prove to myself I can be better than what I was last year,” Nova said. “That’s the only intention I have, just to prove to myself I can pitch.”
He does, of course, acknowledge the obvious: He’s far more comfortable as a starter than a reliever.
“It’s very different from being in the bullpen,” said Nova, who had only seven career relief appearances, and none since 2013, entering the year. “I have my time to warm up and work on the pitches I need to work on. Out of the bullpen, you don’t have that chance. When you’re a starter, if you don’t have it in the first inning, you can have it in the second inning. This is my natural position and I feel good about it.”