Nova's catcher, Russell Martin, said he was prepared to calm the nerves of the second-year pitcher through his postseason debut and he was sure that a visit or two to the mound would be all that was necessary to get Nova through the "jitters" Martin expected against the Tigers on Saturday night.
But where Martin expected anxiety, Nova arrived with excitement. The 24-year-old began his evening by retiring the first seven batters he faced and ended it with a standing ovation in the ninth after hurling 6 1/3 innings of two-run ball. In doing so, Nova became the first Yankees pitcher to win his postseason debut since Orlando Hernandez in 1998 and extended his Major League unbeaten streak to 17 starts, a span in which he has notched 13 wins.
"I was wrong -- he wasn't nervous at all, it seemed like," Martin said. "Even from the get-go -- he just kept pounding the strike zone and was using all of his pitches. He just did a great job for us."
Saturday night's five-strikeout, four-hit performance was par for the course for Nova, who does not strike out many batters but has surprised many with his consistent ability to retire hitters anyway. Originally a replacement in the Yankees' rotation for the injured Phil Hughes and sent down to the Minor Leagues upon Hughes' return in early July, Nova has surpassed all expectations since returning to the big club on July 30, going 8-0 with a 3.18 ERA.
Nova's success has become so commonplace that manager Joe Girardi didn't seem even remotely surprised by how well his No. 2 starter performed in Game 1.
"I talked about if he was able to control his emotions, I thought he could pitch pretty well," Girardi said. "I didn't think he had his best stuff today, and he still found a way to get outs. I loved what he did today."
With the two teams tied at 1 in the fifth inning, Nova had a little help from his defenders to get out of trouble. After striking out Victor Martinez swinging, Nova walked Alex Avila and allowed back-to-back singles to Ryan Raburn and Jhonny Peralta. It was on the second hit, a line drive to center field, that shortstop Derek Jeter cut off Curtis Granderson's throw and fired a perfect strike to nail Avila at the plate.
From there, Nova rebounded to retire 10 of the next 12 batters he faced, with the only baserunners coming on two of his four walks. He again got help in the sixth on a nicely turned 4-4-3 double play and a diving catch by Nick Swisher, but it was Nova alone who kept Detroit's best hitter in check. In the fourth, he fanned the dangerous Miguel Cabrera with a nasty slider low and away, and in the seventh, Cabrera could muster only a ground ball to third base. The Tigers slugger finally reached on a walk and later scored in the ninth, but it was not nearly enough.
The walk to Cabrera was sandwiched by a pair of hits, and Girardi opted for relievers Luis Ayala and Mariano Rivera to finish what Nova started. Both runs charged to Nova crossed the plate in the ninth with the right-hander out of the game. Though he couldn't go the distance after Sabathia started with two innings on Friday, Nova did more than enough to put his team in position to win.
Perhaps Martin should have known better. After all, if Saturday counted as a start, it would have been Nova's ninth quality start in his past 12 tries, a stretch that also encompasses nine Yankees victories. In addition to his proven abilities, Nova has now shown that the confidence he built during the regular season will hold true under the bright lights of October.
No, there were no jitters on Saturday night at Yankee Stadium. Only swagger.
"I was so excited -- my first postseason start," Nova said. "I could not believe it. It's the same game. A little bit more pressure, of course, but it looked the same to me."
Aaron Taube is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.