Nova does just what the skipper ordered

In assessing the explosive offense after Friday night’s 8-5 victory, Yankees manager Joe Girardi added, “And let’s get the pitchers right, too. We have to click on all cylinders, basically. One night, we might score eight runs. The next night, we may not. And that’s when the pitchers have got to pick up the hitters.”

Give the skipper a swami turban.

Ivan Nova’s three-hit, complete-game shutout Saturday was just the kind of performance the manager had talked about. For a while there, it looked as if the Yankees’ run in the first inning on doubles by Brett Gardner and Robinson Cano off Scott Feldman was all they would get before Cano made the score 2-0 with a home run into the right field bleachers off lefthander Troy Patton in the eighth.

Nova was certainly uplifted by Cano’s 25th homer of the year. He hoped Girard would let him go out for the ninth inning and not be tempted to bring in Mariano Rivera. The second run helped.

“I told the guys I don’t want a 1-0 game; get me another run,” Nova said. “I’m happy that Joe gave me the opportunity.”

Nova earned the chance to finish this one out. He walked one batter and hit two but allowed only three hits. The third was a leadoff single in the ninth inning by Nate McLouth on a chopper to the mound that Nova knocked down but could not recover in time to throw him out. And Girardi still stayed with Nova.

“If it had been a walk, it might have been different,” Girardi said. “But he got a ground ball. And what we needed after that was another ground ball.”

Nova did not get another grounder, however. McLouth getting on added drama to the situation because the third hitter due up that inning was the major-league home run leader, Chris Davis. One swing could have tied the score. After Manny Machado flied out to left, Davis had the Yankee Stadium crowd gasping when he hit a towering fly ball to right field.

That was when it was discovered that Ichiro Suzuki is pretty good at playing possum, which I though was strictly an American trait. Ichiro did not move at first, an indication that the ball was behind him and in the seats. Then after a tantalizingly long moment, he held his glove up over his head and made the catch on the warning track. Suzuki knew he was playing with the crowd.

“Humans want to come from a bad place to a good place,” he said. “Of course, you have to make the play.”

Unlike many of the 42,836 in attendance, Nova didn’t think the ball was going out. The look on Davis’ face told him that, a look that said, “I didn’t get it.” Catcher Chris Stewart said Davis hit the ball off the end of his bat, another good sign of the sinking movement on Nova’s fastball.

There was still another dangerous hitter to go, but Adam Jones’ line drive ended up in the glove of shortstop Derek Jeter.

“He picked up the hitters and the bullpen,” Girardi said of Nova, who won his fourth consecutive start in improving his record to 8-4 with a 2.88 ERA.

With CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda showing signs of fatigue and Phil Hughes winless in nearly two months, Nova has been the rotation’s savior in the second half. The Yankees will go for the series sweep Sunday afternoon behind Andy Pettitte, who is also on a winning streak with three straight victories.

“The key to me for Nova is that he is keeping his fastball down in the zone,” Girardi said. “He has a good curve, but it is even better because he can keep hitters off balance with that fastball down in the zone.”

Girardi also gave Nova credit for “finding himself” during his time in the minor leagues last year and this following his 16-victory season in 2011. Nova agreed.

“I went to Tampa where I worked to do the things I needed to do to prove what kind of pitcher I can be,” Nova said.

It comes down to maturity. Nova was a pretty green kid when he surprised people in 2011. The league catches up to young pitchers if they are not careful, and Nova took his lumps. Saturday, he showed what kind of pitcher he can be.

It was an uplifting day for the Yankees, who jumped over Baltimore into third place in the American League East after a 47-game period since July 7 in fourth place and also positioned themselves ahead of Cleveland in the wild-card chase where they still trail Tampa Bay and Oakland, but as Girardi pointed out, “It sure beats four or five” teams ahead of them.

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