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Missing up in zone, Nova labors over 3 innings

Pirates believe fatigue could be causing righty's second-half struggles
MLB.com

CHICAGO -- Early on this season, the Pirates let Ivan Nova pitch as deep into games as he possibly could. He rewarded their faith with two complete games in an outstanding April, 15 straight starts in which he pitched at least six innings and a 3.21 ERA in the first half.

But after Nova labored through three difficult innings Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle had seen enough. Nova's second-half struggles continued as he allowed five runs (four earned) and threw 69 pitches over three innings in the Bucs' 17-3 loss to the Cubs.

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CHICAGO -- Early on this season, the Pirates let Ivan Nova pitch as deep into games as he possibly could. He rewarded their faith with two complete games in an outstanding April, 15 straight starts in which he pitched at least six innings and a 3.21 ERA in the first half.

But after Nova labored through three difficult innings Wednesday night at Wrigley Field, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle had seen enough. Nova's second-half struggles continued as he allowed five runs (four earned) and threw 69 pitches over three innings in the Bucs' 17-3 loss to the Cubs.

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"There was no thought for [him] continuing based on what our eyes told us and how hard he was trying to create something out there that really wasn't happening tonight," Hurdle said.

Nova entered his 27th start having thrown 165 2/3 innings. He hasn't carried that kind of workload since he made 28 starts for the Yankees in 2012. On Tuesday, Hurdle noted the "wear and tear that can be picked up along the way," even for a veteran starter pitching this late in the season.

Nova and Hurdle were clear on one thing: He is not pitching through any sort of injury. But could fatigue be the culprit for his second-half skid? It depends on who you ask.

Nova would not blame his struggles on any sort of physical issue or mechanical problem. He pointed out that this downturn began more than a month ago. In nine starts since the All-Star break, he has posted a 6.38 ERA and a 1.69 WHIP.

"If this was my first bad one or my second one and you asked me that question, I'd probably say yes. But that's not the case," Nova said. "I haven't been doing my job since the All-Star break, like a month or so, so that's a pretty long time."

But catcher Chris Stewart sees continued signs of fatigue.

"He gives it everything he has. He's just at a point now where his body's tired," Stewart said. "His arm's dragging a little bit. He's not able to get on top and drive the ball down. The curveball's not as sharp. It makes it tough. He's got to be that much more perfect. When he's not, he gets hit."

Nova thrived earlier this season by pounding the bottom of the strike zone with sinkers and curveballs. Lately, his pitches have drifted up in the zone, and hitters have squared him up. He has allowed 21 homers in his last 16 starts after giving up only five in his first 11 outings.

"I'm leaving a lot of pitches over the plate, missing a lot on top of the plate," Nova said. "You've got to pitch more down in the strike zone. They were taking advantage of it."

Where does Nova go from here? He said he'll quickly forget about Wednesday's game, continue working and figure out a way to be better next time.

The Bucs are out of the postseason picture, falling 10 games behind the surging Cubs in the National League Central. The Pirates want to get a look at some of their younger starters in September, including Steven Brault and Tyler Glasnow. With rosters expanding from 25 to 40 players on Friday, the Pirates could shuffle their rotation to provide additional rest for Nova.

"We just need to talk about him and his energy level and where he is physically, and we will," Hurdle said. "We have been. We've been monitoring, thinking about it."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.