February 16, 2017

BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) Ivan Nova is happy to be back with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Nova made that clear in December, when he signed a three-year, $26 million contract. It was obvious again from the smile on Nova's face when he checked into spring training camp Tuesday.

It's as plain as the whiskers on his face - something Nova was not allowed to have when was with the New York Yankees.

''I respect the way they are in New York, (being) clean shaven,'' Nova said. ''I've got nothing against that. But, you have to make it a little bit fun. I'd never grown a beard before. Here, I can grow a beard and cut in the middle and nobody cares. You have fun sometimes with that kind of stuff.''

Nova was having a ho-hum season when the Yankees traded him to the Pirates in August. Over his final 11 starts, the right-hander went 5-2 with a 3.06 ERA and put himself in great position to test free agency.

Although the 30-year-old pitcher said there were ''a couple'' other teams that wanted to sign him for more money, Nova all along wanted to return to Pittsburgh.

''It's the people you have around you,'' Nova said. ''I feel so comfortable, knowing I have my two catchers here, the way everybody treats me here, the pitching coach we have, the way these guys play the game. I feel this is the perfect place for me.''

Nova, 30, will anchor the front end of the rotation, along with right-hander Gerrit Cole.

Nova's eagerness remain with the Pirates caught the attention of his teammates.

''That's huge, especially for what we signed him for,'' catcher Chris Stewart said. ''We were able to open up some money to sign other guys. What he did for us last year was amazing and we expect nothing less from him this year. To have him around for the next three years is going to be huge for us.''

Stewart and Nova were teammates in New York in 2012 and 2013. Although Nova put up good numbers over his seven seasons with the Yankees - including 16 wins in 2011 and a 3.10 ERA in 2013 - he never felt secure in the rotation.

Nova's nervousness went away after he switched teams.

''I was relaxed (with the Pirates), knowing that when I pitched, no matter what happened, I was going to have another start,'' Nova said. ''In New York, sometimes you don't have that. Sometimes, if you pitch a bad game, you go to the bullpen or the minors. That's they way they do it.''

Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage told Nova to be more aggressive in the strike zone and to not fear pitching to contact. Nova responded by issuing just three walks in 64 2-3 innings and averaging 7.2 strikeouts per nine innings.

''It was not thinking too much,'' Nova said. ''Just being aggressive.''

The bigger ballparks in the National League helped, too. The vast outfield at PNC Park suits Nova fine.

''It's not easy pitching in the American League,'' Nova said. ''In New York, if (the batter) doesn't hit it to (center field), if he hits it to the corner, that's a homer. Even a broken bat will be a home run. Here, it's a little deeper. I think the fact that I was relaxed and comfortable here helped me out. I could pitch without thinking about anything else except trying to make my pitch every time.''

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