Ivan Nova's unlikely rise to the Majors
Right-hander nearly gave up on his way to Yankee Stadium
There was a time when Yankees right-hander Ivan Nova was an unhappy loser, ready to chuck his pitching career before it had barely begun. Then again, it wasn't long before that when Nova didn't want to pitch, period.
He was about 15, playing shortstop on Saturdays in San Cristobal, Dominican Republic.
"We were missing a pitcher and my manager asked me if I wanted to pitch," Nova said. "I was sitting on the bench because I'd played in the morning, so he invited me to play (against older boys) in the afternoon, too.
"I said, 'Yeah, I'll do it.' So, I threw one inning, struck out two guys. He said, 'You should be pitching,'" Nova said, "but in my mind, I was a shortstop."
Nova had to be talked out of wanting to be an infielder. A growth spurt helped change his mind. He was lean and lanky, a better fit for the mound.
The transition wasn't easy. He'd wake up an hour or two before dawn to work out. Soon, though, he was improving and scouts were beginning to take notice.
The Red Sox wanted to sign him. Nova turned them down. He was a Yankees fan, he said, and told his team's trainer he wanted to sign with them. The trainer called Victor Mata, a Yankees outfielder-turned-scout in Latin America.
Mata saw potential in the 17-year-old Nova, particularly his ability to consistently throw strikes and the ease with which he delivered a fastball. Mata signed him.
In 2006, Nova was in rookie ball. The following year he moved to Class-A Charleston before moving to higher Class-A Tampa in 2008, where his season began with a losing streak. That's where the trouble began and, as it turned out, ended.
"I was losing. I was crying in my apartment. I was talking to Edwin (one of his five brothers) on the phone. I was telling him, 'I want to go home,' and he was saying, 'Keep doing it. You're pitching good. Keep doing it.'"
Edwin told their mother. She called Mata and Mata called Ivan.
"He starts telling me, 'Guys who pitch in the big leagues, they get hit and everything, but they don't quit. They keep trying.' I told him, 'I want to quit. I want to go home.'
"He says, 'You want me to go over there? I'll go right now. You tell me to my face you want to quit, OK? Tell me to my face and I'll take you home.' "I told him, 'You stay there,'" Nova said. "He's a tough guy."
Nova finished the 2008 Florida State League season 8-13 with a 4.36 ERA.
Because of a slew of free-agent signings that filled the Yankees' 40-man roster, they gambled, leaving Nova unprotected after the season, figuring no other team would want him.
"I thought, 'They don't love me anymore.' I thought they didn't want me on their team," Nova said.
The Padres claimed him in the Rule 5 draft in December, but after he gave up eight runs in 8 2/3 innings in 2009, they returned him to New York.
He split a mediocre year (6-8, 3.68) between Double-A Trenton and Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Then he blossomed (12-3, 2.86) at Triple-A in 2010 and started seven Yankees games in their playoff push in August and September.
Nova has a fastball, curve, changeup and slider, but that last pitch began as a cutter. Billy Connors, former Yankees pitcher and pitching coach and now vice president of player personnel, taught it to him at the team's Minor League headquarters in Tampa, Fla., while the Yankees were in the 2010 postseason.
The following spring, pitching coach Larry Rothschild helped with some modifications and Nova was in the starting rotation on Opening Day.
"That's the pitch. That's my pitch right now," Nova said. "That's the pitch when I need a strikeout, righty or lefty, I can go with that pitch and pretty much get it."
Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.