Ivan Nova Handles the Big Stage Like an Old Pro

Nova's pitching and Robinson Cano's hitting lead Yankees to 9-3 win

Ivan Nova will have to wait a bit longer for his first playoff start, but he has his first playoff gem under his belt.

Thanks to the suspension of Friday night's game because of rain, Nova was a reliever when he made his first ever postseason pitch on Saturday night. You'd be hard pressed to find a better relief outing, even if you included Mariano Rivera.

Nova held the Tigers scoreless for six innings before fading in the ninth as he hit 100 pitches and giving way to Luis Ayala. His final line — 6.1 innings, five strikeouts, four hits, four walks and two runs that scored after Ayala came into the game — was still awfully good for a guy who had never pitched in the October crucible before Saturday night.

It was more than enough for the win in the 9-3 game that, thanks to that rain suspension, was about as unsual as any you'll ever see in the postseason. There was no national anthem and no announcement of lineups at the stadium. The game simply picked up in the bottom of the second as though there hadn't been nearly 24 hours between pitches.

Nova's effort was significant because it showed his regular season magic hadn't worn off, but his performance will have bigger implications on the rest of the series.

With Sunday's off-day eliminated, there will be games on four straight days. That caused some worry about the workload the Yankees bullpen might face as the series unfolds, but that worry is gone, thanks to the way Nova handled the Detroit lineup Saturday night.

By getting so deep into the game, Nova should have allowed Joe Girardi to save his key relief arms for future use. Thanks to Ayala doing a much less amusing replay of his work in Tampa on Wednesday, Rivera had to come in to get the final three-pitch strikeout and ruin the best-laid plans of mice and men. 

With CC Sabathia going on Monday, the Yankees can keep Freddy Garcia on a very short leash in Game Two without worrying about leaving themselves naked should trouble arise later in the series. Because Rafael Soriano and David Robertson both sat out, the Rivera appearance shouldn't change that equation too much.

Not bad for the first time out of the gate. Also qualifying as not bad? Robinson Cano.

The Yankee second baseman broke the 1-1 tie that carried over from Friday with a double off the top of the left field wall in the fifth inning and then broke the game wide open an inning later. Cano came up with the bases loaded and two outs in what was now a 4-1 game, and the Tigers replaced Doug Fister with reliever Al Alburquerque, who hadn't allowed a single home run all season.

You can probably see where this is going — provided, of course, that you have a clear view of the second deck of the right field stands. Cano blasted a slider that didn't have nearly enough slide into the Bronx night, and a tight game officially became a laugher.

Cano's at-bat came after Curtis Granderson drew a walk while being serenaded with "MVP" chants from the Yankee faithful, a courtesy not extended to Cano. Grandy had a fine season — but the fans might want to double check their memory banks the next time Cano comes to the plate, because Robby built a mighty fine case for that award himself during the 2011 season.

That's why he's now hitting in the third spot, a lineup change that worked out pretty well for Girardi on Saturday night and one that figures to be permanent in Yankee lineups well into the future. Cano, who added another RBI double in the eighth, is the best hitter on the Yankees, and he looks primed for a big October.

Nova and Cano make it all seem like this was pretty simple, but there were some smaller things at work as well. Brett Gardner deserves a nod for a two-out, two-run single that started the sixth-inning rally (after the Yankees started the game 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position), and Derek Jeter continued it with a hit-and-run single through the right side one batter later, thanks to some questionable defensive decision-making by the Tigers.

Gardner took off for second on a 1-2 pitch, and the Tigers had second baseman Ryan Raburn cover the base even though Jeter's ability to go the other way is well known. It's bad luck, especially when you consider the Yankees did the same thing in the sixth and saw Magglio Ordonez ground a ball right to Cano for a double play, but it is also poor planning in a game that doesn't allow much margin for error.

Jeter also came up with a terrific throw to snuff the lone Tiger threat of the night. With an assist from a sharp defensive play and throw by Curtis Granderson, Jeter gunned down Alex Avila — who made life easier by trying to slide around Russell Martin — at the plate after a single by Jhonny Peralta in the fourth inning to keep Nova's night clean.

On a night when Nova pitches as well as he did on Saturday, such things are, at best, sidebars, but they are memories that linger when you watch the contrails of Cano's grand slam fade into the night. The Yankees had everything working their way, and that's why they're in the lead as we make a quick turnaround to Game Two.

Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter and he is also a contributor to Pro Football Talk.

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