Yanks battle early, but Nova remains in a rut

Yanks battle early, but Nova remains in a rut

Yanks battle early, but Nova remains in a rut
DETROIT -- If you believe in body language, there wasn't much to like about Ivan Nova's figure during a fifth-inning moment on the mound. The Yankees hurler slumped his shoulders, pinned his hands on his hips and offered a thousand-yard stare toward no one in right field.

It was hardly the look of a person who, just this April, had proclaimed himself the best pitcher in the world. But that's an accurate snapshot of how it has been going for the right-hander, who was roughed up in Monday's 7-2 loss to the Tigers at Comerica Park.

"Everybody has tough moments; this one is tough right now," Nova said. "I've given up so many runs the last two times, but I still have my confidence up and I know I can do better than this. I've got to work harder than what I'm working, try to make the next one better."

Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera homered for the Tigers, who won their fifth straight game and provided a luxurious seven-run cushion for ace Justin Verlander. The defending American League Cy Young Award winner and Most Valuable Player struck out a season-high 14 batters over eight innings and threw 132 pitches -- his most in a regular-season game.

"It's the same story every time we face him," Yankees captain Derek Jeter said of Verlander. "He throws the ball well. You're going to have to limit their team to just a few runs most of the time if you're going to have a chance to beat him."

Nova's boastful and memorable comment was delivered in April at Fenway Park, in the midst of a string of consecutive victorious decisions that dated back to last year. That flooding rush of wins has dried to a trickle of late.

Detroit pounded Nova for seven runs and 11 hits in 5 1/3 innings during his fifth straight winless outing. Nova offered few excuses, saying he needs to tweak his slider to restore a sharp bite, and Yankees manager Joe Girardi said that Nova just seems to be in a rut of bad location.

"Every pitcher goes through it," Girardi said. "It's part of the game: you're going to go through struggles. For the most part, this kid's been pretty good for us, but right now he's in a struggle and he's got to fight his way out of it."

The Yankees took advantage of an extra fifth-inning out to tie the game, after Verlander dropped a toss to first base, but Nova quickly gave back the runs produced by RBI singles from Jeter and Robinson Cano.

To the delight of a sellout crowd of 41,381, five straight Tigers hitters pounded hits against Nova in the home half of the fifth, with Omar Infante and Austin Jackson knocking home runs before Andy Dirks' sacrifice fly.

"I'm leaving too many pitches in the middle," Nova said. "The hitters are too comfortable against me. It's a tough day for me, another day, but I can turn the page. I've got to keep working."

The Tigers added two more runs in the sixth to knock out Nova after just 68 pitches, chasing him with Alex Avila's RBI single and tacking on another run with Jhonny Peralta's run-scoring hit off Joba Chamberlain.

Nova walked none and struck out five in the outing, and he has won just once in eight starts since June 28.

"His slider didn't have much bite to it," catcher Russell Martin said. "He made a couple of mistakes with that pitch. He tried to get the curveball going, too, but then it was a little bit inconsistent. You just really have to rely on your fastball. Against a good offensive team, it's going to be a tough day, and that's what happened."

Verlander doesn't ask for much help from his offense, but a seven-run cushion seemed downright plush as the right-hander chased his first win against the Yankees since May 13, 2010.

Verlander's 14 strikeouts marked the most by a Tigers pitcher against the Yankees since Jim Bunning whiffed 14 in a complete game on June 20, 1958, with Mickey Mantle and Elston Howard each fanning three times.

"It's a hard team to strike out because of how professional every single one of their batters is," Verlander said. "They put up quality at-bats. They don't chase a lot of stuff.

"I was able to establish my breaking ball early in the game and throw a lot of strikes with it, which allowed me to start expanding the zone a little bit. And they kind of had to swing at it because I'd established that I could throw it for a strike when I wanted."

Only Eric Chavez, who stroked two doubles and a single in his first three at-bats, seemed to provide comfortable at-bats against Verlander. Even Ichiro Suzuki, who had hit safely in his first 12 Yankees games, went 0-for-4 with three ugly strikeouts.

"That's why he's an ace and that's why he's got Cy Youngs on his mantle," Girardi said. "He logs 250 innings and wins 18-20 games every year. That's why. He's got great stuff."

But the Yankees' main concern is getting Nova back on track, to a place where Alex Rodriguez once opined of the young hurler, "All he knows how to do is win."

Including a rough July 31 start against the Orioles, Nova has permitted 16 runs and 21 hits over his last 10 1/3 innings. No matter how you crunch them, those numbers make it difficult to live in the win column.

"Honestly, I'm really confident," Nova said. "My confidence level is up. I'm not the only pitcher in baseball who is going through a bad time right now. I know I'm going to get out of this one."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.