LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- There were days a few years back, Ivan Nova recalled, when he would head to the bullpen for a between-starts throwing session. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild would ask what the young right-hander wanted to work on that afternoon.

"I would say, 'I don't know. You tell me,'" Nova said, with a chuckle. "Now I have the confidence to tell Larry, 'I want to work on this. I want to work on that.' I feel good with the way this is going so far."

The 27-year-old has a few more innings under his belt these days, and Nova said that he has been making that necessary transition from a thrower into a pitcher. As he attempts to build on a strong second half of last season, the spring results have been falling right into line.

Projected as New York's No. 3 starter to open the season, Nova turned in a sharp performance against the Braves on Wednesday at Champion Stadium, permitting just two hits over 6 1/3 scoreless innings. Nova walked none and struck out five in the efficient outing, dropping his spring ERA to 3.66.

"When he's on, he gets a lot of ground balls," Yankees catcher Brian McCann said. "He's able to pitch to all quadrants of the plate to all hitters, righties and lefties. When you do that and you work downhill like he does, he misses barrels."

Though he is assured a place in the Yankees' starting five -- a luxury that was not in his pocket in years past -- Nova has said that he is approaching the spring as though he needs to still fight for his job. It was only last year, after all, that he found himself riding buses in Triple-A after a sluggish opening to the year.

"I always say, I'm one of the young guys," Nova said. "A couple of guys already asked me if I feel like a veteran. I'm not a veteran. I'm just a young guy that's hungry. I want to be winning games. I want to do what's best for the team."

Nova's spring has been something of a mixed bag; he leads the team in strikeouts (21) and innings pitched (19 2/3), issuing just two walks in his five starts, but he has also been thumped for a team-leading 21 hits.

Still, Nova believes that he can pick up where he left off at the tail end of the 2013 campaign, when he was named the American League's Pitcher of the Month for August after going 4-0 with a 2.08 ERA in six starts. He wrapped the year 9-6 with a 3.10 ERA in 23 games (20 starts) overall.

"Pitching the way I did last year in the second half and knowing what I did, I think I'm old enough to know what I'm doing," Nova said. "I've just got to keep my focus."

Working with McCann is part of that. Nova said that he and the Yankees' new backstop have hit it off, and McCann said that he thought it was important to make the trip to Walt Disney World -- not to see his old Atlanta training site, but for another day of getting acquainted with Nova.

"I needed to catch Nova," McCann said. "That's the reason I came. I needed to catch Nova again."

"We have really good communication, not only the day that you pitch," Nova said. "Tomorrow I know for sure that we're going to talk in between days. He's a veteran catcher. He knows what to do. He has a way to keep you in the game."

It helps that Nova has developed the ability to set his own plans, thinking ahead to work toward successful results. He recounted a more recent conversation with Rothschild, illustrating just how far he has come.

"It's like Larry told me the other day," Nova said. "We were throwing a bullpen [session] and he said, 'What are we going to work on?' I told him, 'I just want to keep the ball down.' He said, 'Wow. I remember when I used to watch you and you'd say, I don't know.'"