When Ivan Nova threw a six-inning no-hitter during the spring, he gave a lot of credit to a new toy that he'd been working on with the team's pitching coaches.
That toy was a slider that was really the result of an attempt to learn a cutter, baseball's super pitch, and its arrival gave Nova a four-pitch arsenal to use as a member of the Yankee rotation. And then, after a couple of April starts, the pitch went away as Nova relied on the fastball-curveball-changeup package he'd ridden to this point.
That's worked out well enough for his spot in the rotation to always be up for discussion on a team that has been looking to improve on the mound since Cliff Lee went back to Philadelphia. If Nova wanted to hold onto the spot, he needed to do more than the less than cromulent work he's turned in once every five days.
Re-enter the slider. Nova put the pitch back into rotation on Monday night against the Reds, deepening his arsenal and leaving the Cincinnati hitters without any clue about how to hit him during a 5-3 victory.
Nova gave up hits to the first two batters he faced, allowed a run to score on a double play and then retired 22 of the next 25 hitters to come to the plate, including one strikeout that Russell Martin couldn't handle behind the plate.
Nova generated 15 groundouts, a very high number against a powerful Reds offense playing in a ballpark designed to yield homers by the bushel, and pitched deeper into a game than he ever has in the past.
It was the kind of performance that makes you simultaneously wonder what Nova's been doing the rest of the season and whether this is something he can keep on doing. The addition of the slider makes you think he can continue turning in better results because he's now a tougher pitcher to face, but the fact that they were playing a National League team on Monday means we aren't about to bet Little Timmy's private school tuition on that happening.
The AL now leads the NL 56-38 in this year's round of interleague play, continuing a trend that seems to have been in place since Ty Cobb was spiking a triceratops while stealing second. Seeing a pitcher that has struggled to get through relatively weak AL lineups dominate a game so thoroughly at least suggests that there's something beyond Nova at play here.
Not that the Yankees won't take it. There are a lot of positives in Nova's willingness to try something new and his confidence should be booming after Monday night's outing.
And, should he backslide once the game returns to normal, the Yankees have found a secret weapon for the World Series. Not bad for June.