Nova's three-hit shutout was just the second by a Yankee pitcher this season. (Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
The Yankees' August surge has slowed in the month's final week. After winning ten of twelve games from August 11 to 21, the Yankees won just two of their next six, but by taking the first two games of their weekend series against the Orioles, they pulled into third place in the AL East for the first time since July 6 and have also pulled into third place in the wild-card race, just four games behind the second-place Rays, who will play the A's in Oakland on Saturday night.
The win that pushed the Yankees ahead of the Orioles on Saturday came courtesy of a shutout by Yankee starter Ivan Nova. Nova's three-hitter was just the second shutout by a Yankee pitcher this season (Hiroki Kuroda also shut out the Orioles at Yankee Stadium way back on April 14). Nova has been the unsung hero of the Yankees' recent surge. While Kuroda has stumbled (0-3, 8.10 ERA in his last three starts), and CC Sabathia has continued his season-long struggles (his ERA hit a season-high 4.91 after his start Friday night, matching the 4-13 Phil Hughes' mark), the 26-year-old Nova and 41-year-old Andy Pettitte (3-0, 0.75 ERA in his last four starts) have stepped up to keep the Yankee rotation, supposedly a team strength heading into the season, from sinking the team just as their lineup finally started to get healthy and productive.
Nova's success has been far more sustained than Pettitte's, however. Bounced from the rotation by triceps inflammation at the end of April and demoted to Triple-A two relief appearances after his return from the disabled list in late May, Nova has posted a 2.28 ERA since being recalled at the end of June, a span of 11 starts and one 5 2/3-inning relief appearance (also against Baltimore). His only non-quality start over that span came two turns ago against the Blue Jays, who also hit him hard in April, but after giving up four runs in the second inning of that start, Nova managed to settle down and throw another 4 1/3 scoreless innings to pick up the win, an impressively mature performance from the third-year starter.
Nova has been something of an enigma for the Yankees thus far in his career. Signed out of the Dominican Republic at the age of 17 in 2004, Nova was left unprotected heading into the 2008 Rule 5 draft coming off a season in which he went 8-13 with a 4.36 ERA in High-A. The Padres claimed Nova that December, but returned him in March, after which he thrived in 12 starts at pitching-friendly Double-A Trenton, then was hit hard in 12 more in Triple-A. A strong showing in Triple-A in 2010, however, led to his major league debut and a spot in the Yankee rotation down the stretch that season. In 2011, he was one of the Yankees' best starters, going 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA, finishing fourth in the Rookie of the Year voting, and serving as the team's number-two starter in the Division Series against the Tigers. Nova left Game 5 of that series after just two innings complaining of forearm pain, and late in his disappointing sophomore season (final stats: 12-8, 5.02 ERA), he hit the disabled list with a rotator cuff issue. After winning the fifth-starter's job in camp this spring, he had the aforementioned triceps issue, but he has since emerged, in the wake of Kuroda's recent struggles, as the team's best starting pitcher in the second half.