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Nova settling into life as a No. 1 starter

With rotation spot secure, right-hander uses spring to work on pitch execution
MLB.com @adamdberry

BRADENTON, Fla. -- For years, Ivan Nova entered Spring Training with something to prove. He had to earn a spot in the Yankees' rotation or, occasionally, anywhere on the team. He is far removed from those days now, however, having already been named the Pirates' Opening Day starter.

That certainty has given Nova the freedom to experiment in Spring Training, something he emphasized after his five-inning start against the Rays in Pittsburgh's 9-3 loss at LECOM Park on Wednesday. Nova allowed three runs on six hits and a walk, but the work behind those results mattered more to the veteran starter.

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- For years, Ivan Nova entered Spring Training with something to prove. He had to earn a spot in the Yankees' rotation or, occasionally, anywhere on the team. He is far removed from those days now, however, having already been named the Pirates' Opening Day starter.

That certainty has given Nova the freedom to experiment in Spring Training, something he emphasized after his five-inning start against the Rays in Pittsburgh's 9-3 loss at LECOM Park on Wednesday. Nova allowed three runs on six hits and a walk, but the work behind those results mattered more to the veteran starter.

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"You just want to make sure you take time to work on some stuff. When it's game time, you don't think that way," Nova said. "You've got to get people out, no matter how. At least here, you have that mentality that you're going to work on something."

It's true that "getting your work in" can be a Spring Training cliché or crutch, especially for players with little to prove or those who put up subpar numbers. Players competing for roster spots can't afford to just "get their work in" without considering the results. But a veteran like Nova, already set atop the rotation, can take a longer view of Spring Training.

"He understands what he needs to do to become more of a complete pitcher. That's what we're looking for," manager Clint Hurdle said. "I'm extremely pleased with the way he's going about his work to get things done, and to improve in those areas and give it a chance to work in games. To learn from it."

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For one, Nova knows he can improve against left-handed hitters. Tampa Bay's lefties fared better against Nova on Wednesday, and lefties slashed .309/.342/.516 against the right-hander last season. By comparison, right-handed batters slashed .249/.294/.419 last year.

This spring, Nova has focused on improving his changeup. Opponents know Nova is a strike-thrower -- and the numbers show he makes a habit of throwing away from hitters -- so he's also worked on throwing inside more often. If he can show the ability to go inside effectively, especially against lefties, it will give hitters something else to think about.

His line in Wednesday's box score might have looked better, for instance, if he threw curveballs in more two-strike counts instead of inside fastballs. Some of those pitches crept back over the plate, and the Rays hit them.

"During the season, maybe you don't do that. You go with your strength," Nova said. "At least you have the mentality of what you want to do, and trying to execute it. If it's not working at that point, at least you have the mindset that you're trying to do this and it didn't work out, maybe next time it will."

Nova was pleased with his efficiency, as he had to throw extra pitches in the bullpen even after completing five innings. He was also surprised to hear that his fastball, which averaged 93.1 mph last season, touched 94 mph with more than two weeks left in camp.

Last year, Nova said, teammates wondered why his fastball sat between 86-88 mph in his first spring outing. Now, they're asking why he's reaching the mid-90s so early. What changed? He credited the offseason workout program that helped him add strength and drop 10 pounds.

"My body feels much, much better. My arm is coming a lot quicker," he said. "Everything feels like it's on point right now. … It's a good feeling knowing I have it there. It's not that I have it in mind I'm going to throw hard. It's just coming natural, and it's a good feeling to have."

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

Pittsburgh Pirates, Ivan Nova