Anyone who expected Ivan Nova to be one of the best stories of this Yankees season kept pretty quiet before the year got underway.
Nova was asked to be a solid starter in the back of the rotation who could eat innings at something approximating a league average level. The Yankees didn't expect more than that and would have probably been just fine with something a little bit less when all was said and done.
They've gotten much, much more, though. Nova threw 7.2 innings of shutout baseball on Tuesday night, paving the way to a 5-0 win over the Rays and sealing, once and for all, his spot as the second-best starter on the Yankees entering the playoffs.
Questions about that status have lingered, likely because the Yankees are such an old team that they look askance at anyone who doesn't remember when music came on cassette tapes. But Nova has been so much better than the rest of the rotation for the last two months that any doubts have been totally and completely erased.
That doesn't mean he'll absolutely start Game Two as the Yankees may decide that his superior road splits make him a better choice to start the first road game of the first round. Some will argue that's overthinking things, especially after Tuesday night, but the Yankees aren't really in a position to do anything other than put Nova in the absolute best spot for him to succeed.
With Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia, Phil Hughes and A.J. Burnett as the other options to start games, the Yankees really need to make sure Nova's astounding run of wins continues. He's won 12 straight decisions and the Yankees have won 13 of the last 15 games that he's started overall, a string that has done much to put them on the doorstep of a division title.
Nova's win, combined with yet another Red Sox loss, dropped the magic number for the AL East to three games. That means Wednesday can end with a celebration if the Yankees sweep their doubleheader with the Rays and the Red Sox continue their pathetic play against the Orioles.
That, like Tuesday, would wind up being a net gain for the Sox, because they still have a lead and every day that melts off the schedule helps them draw closer to the Wild Card spot. It is tempting to enjoy the demise of the Sox and we won't tell you not to have a little extra spring in your step at a meltdown of Metsian proportions, but the truth is the Yankees should be happy to see the Sox make it to October.
The Red Sox pitching makes the Yankees look like they are the Braves of the 90's and facing them in a series would be a delight in October. It is very unlikely such a series will come to pass, but if the Rays make it they have the kind of pitching that can propel them on a long run.
Thanks to Nova, that run remains a figment of their imagination while a Yankee run is closer to fruition than at any other point this season.