PITTSBURGH -- After watching Jonathan Jay swing and miss at a 97.1-mph fastball, his hardest pitch of the season, Ivan Nova spun on the mound toward first base, pumped both fists and screamed. He marched toward the Pirates' dugout, energized by the moment and the satisfaction of having done his job, and waved his cap toward the crowd of 34,383, many of them standing and cheering.
For Nova, Saturday night was emotional from the start. He saw fans filling the stands at PNC Park as he walked out to the bullpen to warm up. He has not experienced a pennant race in Pittsburgh, and he wasn't around for the three straight National League Wild Card Games played at this ballpark. This was as good of a crowd as he has seen here. Nova, in turn, delivered the lengthy start the Pirates needed -- the kind they have come to expect from him -- with seven strong innings in a 4-3 win over the Cubs.
"I felt like it was one of the best games that I've played in Pittsburgh here so far," Nova said. "From the first inning, the fans were into the game. It was special to pitch in [front of] a crowd like this."
Saturday was the Pirates' 68th game of the season. In half of those games, their starter has pitched fewer than six innings. Nova is now responsible for 14 of the 34 games in which Pittsburgh's starter has gone at least six. He has done so in each of his outings this season, the first Pirates pitcher to run off a streak this long since Eddie Solomon went at least six innings in all 17 of his starts in 1981.
Nova allowed three runs on six hits and two walks while striking out six over seven innings, slightly raising his ERA to 2.91. He needed only 94 pitches to get through seven. If he had known reliever Juan Nicasio was unavailable out of the bullpen, he joked, he would have insisted on going back out for the eighth.
"This is what you want to do. I say it all the time," Nova said. "You want to go deep in the game to give the team a chance to win games.
"I don't want to leave this game without completing my job."
That's one reason Nova was so amped up to get through the seventh, when he stranded the potential tying run on third base. He fell behind Jay, three balls and no strikes, before firing a pair of fastballs, both called strikes, at 95.8 mph and 95.4 mph. Only once before this season had Nova touched 95.8 mph, according to Statcast™.
"Smart pitching," Nova told his teammates. "I don't need to be throwing 97-98 from the first pitch. My job is to locate my pitches, pitch 92-93. If I need to go harder than that, I feel good enough to throw it."
With the count full, Nova reached back and flung a 97.1 mph four-seam fastball by Jay's bat and into catcher Francisco Cervelli's glove.
"Nova gave it a big push. Have you ever seen him hit 96? Have you ever seen him hit 97?" manager Clint Hurdle said. "I think that speaks to what he threw out there the last two pitches, then he gives the signature move on a punchout. He doesn't do that very often.
"He poured the bucket out there."