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Now this is the Ivan Nova the White Sox were hoping for.

OK, maybe not quite this Ivan Nova, the guy who's pitched like Cy Young reincarnated over his last five spins through the South Side rotation to the tune of a 0.49 ERA — that's two earned runs in 37 innings. Tuesday night, in the second game of the White Sox doubleheader with the visiting Houston Astros, Nova was untouchable, holding what might be the best team in baseball to one unearned run and just five base runners in his second complete-game effort in five starts.

But while they perhaps didn't expect him to go out and shut down the Astros, as much a World Series favorite as any team in the game, this was part of the job description when the White Sox acquired Nova in a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates at the Winter Meetings: eat up innings. Nova's done just that, going nine Tuesday, eight the start before that and nine back on July 22.

That's what James Shields did last season, eat up innings, reaching 200 of them by the time the 2018 season ran out. Will Nova reach that same plateau? He's a shade under 150 innings through 25 starts.

He's certainly been healthy this season, a good thing, but reliability wasn't exactly an apt descriptor during the first half of the season, which he finished with a 5.58 ERA that was still north of 6.00 more than midway through June. Now roughly midway through August, he's got that season mark down to 4.51.

 

"It feels good, it feels good," Nova said. "That's what I was hoping from the beginning. Thankfully we turned things around and are pitching better."

The other part of that job description, another role that Shields played in 2018, was to help mentor the young pitchers on the starting staff. While Shields focused his attention on lockermate Lucas Giolito — who's now in the middle of an All-Star campaign and pitching like the ace of the staff — Nova has established a strong relationship with his lockermate, Reynaldo Lopez. The two are a bit more playful than Shields and Giolito, with Nova collecting $100 from Lopez every time the youngster chooses Spanish over English in his postgame media sessions.

As much of an impact that Nova has had on the young Lopez — who's also in the middle of a post All-Star break renaissance, with a 2.13 second-half ERA —  it sounds like Lopez has helped Nova out, as well.

"Lopez was really the one. After (Don Cooper), my pitching coach, Lopez was really the one that got me going," Nova said. "I went to throw a bullpen and he was right there, and he told me I was opening too quick. It was something that Coop and everybody else was telling me before, but for some reason, maybe because it was coming from a player and the relationship that we have and the guy yelling at me from the bench, I think that helped and I was able to correct.

"I've got three pitching coaches: Coop, (assistant pitching coach Curt Hasler) and Lopey."

While Nova's first-half struggles were more than a mild contributing factor to rotation-wide problems before the All-Star break, this current stretch of dependability and inning-eating begs the question: Does Nova have a future with the White Sox past the end of this season?

With general manager Rick Hahn declaring that starting pitching will be on the White Sox shopping list this winter, fans' minds shoot right to the top of the free-agent market. That's where Gerrit Cole, the Astros' All Star who was scratched from a matchup against Nova on Tuesday night, sits. He's expected to command many a suitor and many a million.

The White Sox figure to have Giolito, Lopez, Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech locked into four of their five rotation spots for next season, meaning perhaps just one spot open for an outside addition. And while Nova has shown how good he can be of late, is someone like Nova really a big enough addition to bolster what should be a different-looking starting staff? Maybe. Maybe not.

But what's for sure is that starting-pitching depth has been an at times crippling issue for the White Sox this season. They burned through their own depth in a hurry this year due to injuries and underperformance and were forced to look to outside additions like Odrisamer Despaigne, Ross Detwiler and Hector Santiago, minor league free agents and a guy who was pitching in independent ball. Someone like Nova in the fold could certainly prevent that kind of thing from happening again. Though serving as depth just in case things go wrong might not be a very attractive role for Nova. Who knows?

 

What's for sure is that Nova is doing what the White Sox hoped he'd do when they traded for him. He's eating up innings, and he's having a positive off-field influence on young pitchers.

Shutting down the Astros in a complete-game effort? Yeah, that's pretty nice, too.

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