We keep trying to count the Yankees out, and they refuse to cooperate

How do you think the New York Yankees are feeling about themselves this morning? That was the Ivan Nova who won 16 games two years ago and has at times looked like a top-of-the-rotation guy. Actually, he was better than he’d ever been, but you get the point.

If he pitches at anything near the level he was at in an 11-strikeout complete-game victory over the Orioles on Friday, the Yankees would have a different look. Even when they were losing position players seemingly by the hour during Spring Training, their starting rotation figured to be good enough to keep them in the mix in the American League East.

That rotation is eighth in the AL in ERA, seventh in quality starts and fourth in innings as Phil Hughes and David Phelps have been maddeningly inconsistent. When the Yankees lost 13 of 18 recently, scoring 3.2 runs per game and falling from 1.5 to 6.5 games out in the American League East, all those injuries finally seemed to be catching up with them.

Since then, they’ve won five in a row to get themselves back in a good place. Meanwhile, the Red Sox have spent 39 consecutive days alone atop the AL East and now have a 5.5-game lead. They’ve survived injuries and slumps to their pitching staff and questions about the bullpen.

Even with the AL East changing this week with the Orioles’ acquisition of Scott Feldman and David Price’s dazzling return from the Disabled List, it’s beginning to look more and like like it’ll be a Red Sox October. But after watching Nova dominate the Orioles on Friday, the Yankees have to feel pretty good about their own chances.

He needed just 102 pitches to throw his first complete game. His last batter was Adam Jones, and of the four pitches he threw him, three were clocked at 95 mph. For the night, he had it all working. He threw first-pitch strikes to 20 hitters, got 14 swings and misses and had a terrific curveball.

He threw 33 of them in all and also mixed in four change-ups, all of them after the fifth inning. By that time, he’d established a really good fastball, so the change-up was the final piece to the puzzle.

Nova got the start in place of Hiroki Kuroda, but pitched so well that Joe Girardi will give him at least another crack. Whether Girardi will go with a six-man rotation for awhile is one of the things he appears to be thinking about. Regardless, Nova gives him interesting options he didn’t have before.

If Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson and Derek Jeter are able to return, and if all of them is productive for, say, the final six or seven weeks of the season, the Yankees are good enough to make the postseason for the 18th time in 19 seasons and maybe keep going.

That would be a remarkable accomplishment when you consider how dismal things looked when last season ended and the waves of bad news that hit the franchise during Spring Training. Plenty can still go wrong. No one knows when Jeter and A-Rod will be back and how well they’ll perform.

But the Yankees win close games, don’t make errors and have a terrific bullpen. Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner have had nice offensive seasons, and if the rotation is solid, the Yankees have a chance. The Yankees and Red Sox play 13 more times, including 10 times in September. Let the fun begin.

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