Lakeland, Fla. — Ivan Nova hasn’t yet thrown a pitch for the Tigers, but his place in team lore has long been secured.
“Yeah, I lost that game,” he said with a wry smile after his workout Monday. “You never forget playoffs. Win or lose, you never forget.”
Nova was 24 and in his first full season in the big leagues in 2011. He went 16-4 for the Yankees and beat the Tigers in Game 1 of the American League Division Series. Manager Joe Girardi gave Nova the ball again in the win-or-go-home Game 5 at Yankee Stadium.
His fate was sealed in two pitches. With one out in the first inning, Don Kelly golfed a hanging, 0-1 curveball into the seats in right field. Delmon Young tomahawked the next pitch Nova threw, a high slider, into the seats in left.
If that happened today, everybody would be checking the audio for the sound of banging trash cans in the dugout.
“No, I mean that’s the game,” said Nova, who didn’t survive the third inning while the Tigers held on to win 3-2 and advance to the championship series. “You’re going to win and you’re going to lose. Unfortunately, we lost that game. But you never forget.”
Amazingly enough, in the eight years, 189 starts and more than 1,000 innings he’s pitched since that series, Nova never has returned to the postseason.
“That is one of the memories of my career,” he said. “Obviously, you want to win, but I got that opportunity, I got the ball a couple of times. Not a lot of guys can say that.”
Nova, now 33, signed a one-year deal with the Tigers on Jan. 13, getting a base salary of $1.5 million with another $500,000 on the table in incentives. Those incentives are based on the number of start and innings pitched — which is right in Nova’s wheelhouse.
He’s averaged 31 starts and 178 innings the last three seasons, pitching for the Pirates and then the White Sox last season, where he posted an 11-12 record and 4.72 ERA in an American League-high 34 starts. He led the league with 225 hits allowed, but he mitigated the damage by inducing a major-league best 30 double-play balls.
“It’s really good to be here with these young guys,” said Nova, whose lanky, though thicker frame and fresh face belie the years. “Plus I get the opportunity to play hopefully with another Hall-of-Famer in Miggy (Cabrera). I can add him to my collection from the Yankees.”
Nova had plenty of suitors this offseason, but you never know what will sway a player to a certain team. Nine of his 10 big-league seasons he’s spent spring training in Florida — with the Yankees in Tampa and with the Pirates in Bradenton. Last year, with the White Sox, was his first spring in Arizona.
“The one thing I was thinking about was I wanted to stay here in Florida,” he said. “Last year I was in Arizona and my wife was pregnant. That was tough. Now, we are close to home. But, you know, I had options and this is the place I wanted to play.
“I wanted to stay in the Central Division and there are a lot of younger players here, and I know we can do a lot of good things.”
It’s hard to fathom since he's been so durable, but Nova had a string of injury issues early in his career, including rotator cuff strain and, in 2014, Tommy John surgery. But he’s been healthy since 2016.
“You get more mature and you know how to manage yourself better,” he said. “When I was younger, I was more of a thrower than a pitcher. I hit a bump in the road with Tommy John surgery. People say you can come back better from that. Not every does, but thank God I was able to.
“There have been some ups and downs, but that’s the game. You are going to have ups and downs. But I want that ball every five days. I am here to pitch.”
He still has the same repertoire of pitches — four-seam, two-seam, curveball, slider-cutter hybrid and change-up. And from 2011 to 2018, he threw his four-seam fastball consistently between 93 and 94 mph. Last year, for the first time since his surgery, the fastball velocity dipped, to 92-93.
He adjusted by throwing more two-seamers, which resulted in a much higher ground-ball rate, and he reincorporated his slider-cutter.
“I keep throwing what I feel comfortable with that day,” Nova said. “You can never rely on just one pitch because what happens if you don’t have it that day? What are you going to do? You always want to have your A game, but you have to be able to adjust and find something that will work when you don’t have it.”
Nova understands that in the Tigers’ big picture he’s a placeholder for a quartet of elite prospects who are maybe a season or less away from making a full impact in the big leagues. It’s nothing new to him. He was never a hot-shot prospect. He always has been willing to fight for opportunities.
“It’s just knowing how to pitch,” he said. “Guys now, all they want to do is throw hard. I know there are guys who throw hard and got all the pitches and the right mechanics to throw hard. But a lot of guys don’t have the mechanics to do that and they just throw hard.
“They don’t take a step back and say, ‘OK, I’ve got to learn how to pitch.’”
Nova wished he could have given his 24-year-old self the same lecture.
“I wish I could reverse the time,” he said. “I wish I had known then what I know now.”