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Ivan Nova, Yankees motivated by competition

03/13/2013 12:19 PM ET
By Jon Lane

Ivan Nova is motivated to regain his 16-win form of 2011.(AP)
Mariano Rivera's message to Ivan Nova was heard loud and clear. Competing with David Phelps to secure the New York Yankees' fifth-starter spot, Nova was told by the legendary closer last year that he wasn't doing what was necessary to remain in the Major Leagues and was at risk of being banished to the Minors.

Nova won 16 games as a rookie and started last season 3-0. By the end of the campaign, he was 12-8 with a 5.02 ERA and left off the postseason roster. In short, Rivera told Nova, who has Minor League options remaining this year, to simply do more. The message cut Nova deep, but also served as his best medicine.

"He told me that and I couldn't even look into his eyes," Nova said. When you talk to Mo, you have to be serious. It's not like when I talk to Robbie Cano.''

The next two-and-a-half weeks will determine whether Rivera's tough love will push Nova over the top in the fifth-starter battle or -- if Phil Hughes (bulging disc) is unable to being the season on time -- he ends up in long relief. To date, Nova-Phelps is too close to call. Nova threw four shutout innings in Tuesday's 3-1 exhibition win and owns a 1.00 spring ERA over nine innings, while Phelps has an 0.64 ERA with six strikeouts and three walks in four games.

"I think he is hungry to win a job," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said of Nova. "When he came off [2011], when he threw really well, the expectations were it would go just as well again. When you run through the bumps, you have to figure it out.''

Thanks to fate, the Yankees have numerous players hungry for similar opportunities, and lots to figure out before April 1 against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium. Besides the back end of the rotation, decisions need to be made at catcher, first base, possibly third and the outfield. Austin Romine's reassignment to Triple-A leaves Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart behind the plate, with Cervelli's deadly accuracy in throwing out base runners this spring making him the current favorite to receive the bulk of playing time.

"He's worked really hard," Girardi said of Cervelli, who was 2-for-2 in throwing out would-be swipers on Tuesday. "His blocking the baseball was outstanding today. Coming up and making two throws. That's something that's rushed in a sense, because that play happens very fast. And he didn't try to do too much, put the ball right on the bag, so that's good. I've liked what he's done."

It's the infield and outfield where injuries to starters Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson have the Yankees evaluating numerous in-house options while considering temporary replacements on the outside. One is the move Kevin Youkilis, signed as a free agent to replace the injured Alex Rodriguez at third base, to first and perhaps shifting Ronnier Mustelier to the hot corner. Juan Rivera (.345) has hit well this spring, so he could play first to keep Youkilis at third.

Rivera, Matt Diaz, Melky Mesa and Zoilo Almonte are the options to play left field in Granderson's absence, but the Yankees are reportedly evaluating right-fielder Brennan Boesch. Released by the Detroit Tigers due to their outfield surplus, Boesch would become a free agent if he clears waivers. Despite his poor 2012 numbers (.240, 12 homers and 54 RBIs in 132 games), Boesch is two seasons removed from a .283-16-54 campaign playing in 115 games. His left-handed swing is also tailored for Yankee Stadium; Boesch's career numbers in the Bronx are .363 (29-for-80) with three doubles, three homers, 16 RBIs and a .907 OPS in 22 games.

Veteran Ben Francisco, after his release from the Cleveland Indians, was also brought on board on a Minor-League deal.

Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC

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