SAN FRANCISCO -- Ivan Nova hopes to take a third step toward becoming the next J.A. Happ when the Pittsburgh Pirates conclude a three-game series against the San Francisco Giants on Wednesday afternoon.
Nova will be making his third start since being acquired on the cheap -- two players to be named -- from the New York Yankees at the trade deadline.
The first two starts were exactly what the Pirates had hoped for in their quest to get back in the National League wild-card race. He limited the Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers to a total of four runs in 12 1/3 innings, pitching the Pirates to 5-3 and 5-1 wins, respectively.
That was quite a change from the Nova who pitched his way out of New York. That version of the right-hander had recorded the third-worst ERA in baseball (5.31) since the start of the 2014 season.
No doubt, the Pirates were willing to take on a resurrection project in part because a similar one worked so swimmingly the previous season.
That was when they took the struggling Happ off the hands of the Seattle Mariners in exchange for a minor league pitcher, Adrian Sampson.
Happ brought with him the fifth-worst ERA (4.72) since the start of the 2011 season. However, he helped pitch the Pirates into the NL wild-card game by going 7-2 with a 1.85 ERA in 11 starts.
He had been 4-6 with a 4.64 ERA in 20 starts for the Mariners last season.
Happ pitched himself into a three-year, $36 million deal with the Toronto Blue Jays in the offseason, and he hasn't disappointed. The left-hander is tied for the major league lead in wins this season with 16.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts says a big difference in Nova is his new defense.
"He didn't walk guys (and) made us put the ball in play," Roberts said after the loss to Nova and the Pirates on Friday night. "Those guys over there, they can defend."
That highlight-reel-filling defense was on display in the Pirates' first two games in San Francisco. Pittsburgh has made three errors, but two were unusual (a dropped foul pop fly by pitcher Jameson Taillon and a catcher's interference on Francisco Cervelli), and none has cost the team a run.
The Giants also have been strong defensively in the series. And they might have to be again with Matt Cain (4-7, 5.47 ERA) on the mound Wednesday.
The veteran could use a rejuvenating trade to the Pirates, as he has headed down the same path as Nova and Happ in recent years.
Cain has gone just 8-18 with a 5.05 ERA since the start of the 2014 season. The ERA is the sixth worst in baseball over that stretch.
The three-time All-Star has had more than his fair share of success against the Pirates in his career, going 3-2 with a 3.04 ERA over 11 starts. The ERA is his second lowest against an NL opponent, with only his 3.00 against the Chicago Cubs being lower.
Nova (9-6, 4.68 ERA overall this year) has pitched just twice in his career against the Giants, and both were gems. He allowed just one run in 16 innings (0.56 ERA), going 1-0.
Having dropped the first two games of the series to Pittsburgh, San Francisco is out of first place in the NL West for the first time since May 10. The Giants are 9-20 since the All-Star break, 1-4 to open their 10-game homestand.
"Nobody's happy the way we've been playing," San Francisco second baseman Joe Panik said. "We know we're not playing the way we should. I don't think we're taking it easy. We're just not getting the job done."
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle hopes his team can do the job one more time to finish the sweep, and he expects a pain-free afternoon because of the pitching matchup.
"You know, you look for where you can make a difference," he said. "Nova-Cain. That's good."