CINCINNATI -- Ivan Nova was in first-half form Saturday afternoon at Great American Ball Park and hopes to finish the second half strong despite leaving the Pirates' 2-1 loss to the Reds early due to right calf tightness.
After struggling through his past 10 starts and posting a 6.62 ERA since the All-Star break, Nova was at his best against the Reds. He retired Cincinnati's first 11 hitters in order and faced the minimum 18 through six innings.
And he did so efficiently, looking more like the pitcher who breezed through two complete games in April and recorded a 3.21 ERA in the first half. He cruised through six innings on 63 pitches, striking out six while allowing one hit -- a Joey Votto single erased by Elias Diaz's back-pick -- and no walks.
Nova ran into trouble in the seventh, when Jesse Winker swatted a leadoff homer into the right-field seats. He gave up a double and a one-out walk, reported his calf discomfort to the Pirates' dugout and slowly stepped off the mound with head athletic trainer Todd Tomczyk.
Nova said he felt his calf tighten up in the seventh inning, but he expects to make his next scheduled start.
"It's going to be fine. I'm going to be fine," Nova said. "Hopefully, six days -- because we have an off-day -- then I'll be back."
If he's back in the same way that he was Saturday afternoon, it'll be a good sign for the Pirates' 2018 rotation. After nine rough starts coming out of the break, the Bucs gave Nova extra rest before sending him to the mound last Sunday in St. Louis.
Nova allowed five runs in five innings, but he felt his last two frames -- when he retired six of the seven Cardinals he faced -- were a good jumping-off point for his between-starts bullpen session and Saturday's outing. He realized he'd been leaning toward first base, not moving directly toward the plate, and that was affecting his command.
"That's what I was thinking after that game and going with that mindset through my bullpen, to work on that," Nova said. "It was a good bullpen session, and we had a good day today."
Nova said he could feel it coming from the moment he reported to Great American Ball Park. He showed up less intense and more relaxed than usual, playing card games with his teammates in the clubhouse. Come game time, however, he was ready to bounce back.
"When I go through some tough times like I've been going through, it's easy to say, 'Don't think about it.' But somehow in the back of your mind, you're thinking you don't want to be the guy pitching bad every five days," Nova said. "So I woke up today and I felt like, 'Today's the day you can get back on track.' I left the hotel room with a positive mindset."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.