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Nova a bright star for Yankees

Unheralded pitcher shined in rotation

Ivan Nova, who went 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA, will start for the Yankees in the second game of the ALDS. Ivan Nova, who went 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA, will start for the Yankees in the second game of the ALDS. (Bill Kostroun/Associated Press)
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / September 30, 2011

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NEW YORK - Ivan Nova will not pull out a photograph. They exist, there’s no question. But, he says, “That’s not me.’’

Back then, back when he signed with the Yankees as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic, he was a scant 145 pounds, and he doesn’t argue with Francisco Cervelli’s assertion that “everybody was ugly there.’’

Ugly, perhaps, but with potential.

“Everybody sees a lot of future, but like in four years,’’ said Cervelli, who caught him back in 2003 when Nova was just 16 years old. “Because he didn’t have what he’s got now. It takes time. And when you work, a lot of good things can happen, that’s the thing, and he never stopped, he always wanted more.’’

He has more now, more even than the Yankees anticipated at the start of the year.

The lightly hyped prospect turned into a badly needed No. 2 starter and is slated to start tomorrow in the second game of the Division Series against the Tigers.

He is a big part of the reason the Yankees are even in this position, having exceeded expectations (along with Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon) to fill the void left by Phil Hughes with a 16-4 record and a 3.70 ERA.

“It’s been a tremendous year for me,’’ Nova said. “I think I did everything that’s possible to be here and, once I got here, I did everything I can to stay with them.

“The point is not that you get to the big leagues, it’s that you stay in the big leagues. I had one moment a couple of months ago when I got sent down to Triple A, and when I got the opportunity to get back in the big leagues, mentally I was ready to stay.’’

He has proven that, over and over again. He has been confident and cool, even as the pressure has increased and the stakes have gotten higher.

Take, for instance, his 16th win of the year, a game that saw Nova emerge unscathed from a seventh inning in which he loaded the bases with no outs, a situation that would have been notable simply because his manager left him in to get out of the jam.

“I thought that last year sometimes innings got away from him,’’ said manager Joe Girardi. “But he has done a much better job at that this year and has figured out how to get out of innings. And when he hasn’t had his best stuff, he’s figured out how to get outs.

“That’s just maturation. And we need him to continue to grow up for us.’’

Confident and calm Sometimes Nova will just start laughing.

Even if no one in the clubhouse is laughing, even if no one in the clubhouse is paying attention, sometimes he gives in to laughter. He doesn’t worry about being ridiculed, about shushing. He has the confidence to do what feels right.

He has the confidence to pitch like a No. 2 starter on the best team in the American League, the confidence building as he has proven to himself and his teammates and his coaches that, despite his youth and inexperience, the 24-year-old can be the pitcher they need.

“I came ready to pitch,’’ said Nova. “I came ready to win games.’’

“I think he knows that he’s got ability, which always helps,’’ said Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild. “I think some of it’s the way you’re raised and some of it’s just your personality. Some of it can be taught and some of it can’t be. But I think he’s got an inner self-confidence and a calm to him.’’

That should prove crucial when he takes the mound against Detroit. He will need that fortitude, that attitude to succeed in a spot that has generally been better left to more experienced arms.

His teammates, though, aren’t worried. Nova has not given them cause to worry, not this season, one that has seemed unbelievable at times. Nova, after all, hasn’t lost a game since June 3, having reeled off 12 consecutive wins. The Yankees lost just three of his final 16 starts.

“I think he’s got great stuff,’’ Garcia said. “In the beginning, he wasn’t able to execute the pitches. Time passes and he was able to do what he’s been doing - throw strikes, make good pitches when he needs to, and he looks out there like a veteran, like nothing bothers him.’’

He has learned, has improved, and now stands as a significant factor in the Yankees’ future plans. He is no longer the question mark he was at the start of the season.

Nova has established himself, impressed his teammates, retained his calm. And he’s been effective, knowing when to listen to those around him, knowing what adjustments to make.

“He just doesn’t give in to anybody,’’ said Austin Romine, who caught him extensively in the minors. “People just can’t hit him. He commands his fastball, he’s got an unbelievable slider, he’s got a good change. He’s got three pitches he commands well.

“He’s just a go-at-you type of guy. He’s not overpowering, he’s not throwing 97, 98. He just hits his spots and gets ground balls and strikes people out.

“He’s one of those guys you get back to the dugout and you’re like, ‘Why am I 0 for 3 against this guy?’ ’’

Primed for playoffs That wasn’t always the case. Nova struggled a bit to begin the season, righted himself, then was sent down to the minors in early July, despite having pitched well in June. Hughes and Colon were coming off the disabled list, and the Yankees needed a spot.

Nova was expendable then. Not anymore.

“I felt bad,’’ Nova said. “Nobody wants to go back to the minors, especially when you know that you’re doing a really good job. But things happen. Things happen, and you’ve just got to know how to go.’’

And know how to come back.

In the two months since returning from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Nova has allowed more than three runs just twice, and even managed to get the win in a game against the Royals in which he allowed seven earned runs.

“Winning is winning,’’ Nova said. “Everybody wants to win, everybody plays to win. So I got a chance to, every time I pitched, get the lead in the first, second, or third, sometimes later, so once I get my lead, that’s your chance right there. You’ve got to go for the win now.’’

That’s what the Yankees will be counting on in the postseason, as they put their faith in the rookie who almost without fail has justified that faith.

Asked what he will tell Nova about pitching in the postseason, Garcia said, “Don’t change anything. The playoffs are different, but if you go out with the confidence, what you’ve been doing, don’t change. Because that’s the game. Sometimes you try to change and that’s when you get in trouble. So keep doing what you’ve been doing.’’

And what Nova has been doing has been pretty darn good.

When asked about the postseason, about his place among the Yankees starters, Nova smiled, a shy grin turning into a beam.

He said he signed initially with the Yankees - back in the old, ugly, skinny days - because they win. Because pitching for the Yankees means pitching in the postseason. And that was all he ever wanted to do.

“Boy, I’m thinking a lot about that,’’ Nova said.

“I think my family are more nervous than me. Because I’m not nervous. I’m just excited. I’m excited. I want to be there already. I want to be part of this.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

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