Ivan Nova can lap up Mariano Rivera’s tough love. He can shorten the path his arm travels during his delivery. In the end, however, whatever Nova becomes or doesn’t become will be up to the 26-year-old right-hander.

As a rookie for the Yankees in 2011, Nova went 16-4 with a 3.70 ERA. He started last year 3-0 and proclaimed himself the best pitcher in the world. When 2012 ended, Nova was 12-8 with a 5.02 ERA and left off the postseason roster.

Now, Nova, who has remaining minor league options, is competing with David Phelps for the fifth spot in Joe Girardi’s rotation — if Phil Hughes is healthy. If Hughes can’t start the season, Nova and Phelps cop spots.

So far, Nova-Phelps is too close to call. Nova certainly didn’t hurt himself yesterday, when he blanked an anemic Rays lineup across four innings in a 3-1 Yankees exhibition victory.

“He did alright,” Girardi said. “The thing I liked the most is that he got out of the [second] inning when he had first-and-third and nobody out. Those are the things you have to do to be a successful pitcher. That’s when things can snowball, and he stopped it.’’

Judging by the numbers, Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild will have a tough decision. In three starts, Nova has worked nine innings with a 1.00 ERA, allowed eight hits and one walk. Phelps has started four games, has a 0.64 ERA with 10 hits, six strikeouts and three walks.

“I am not thinking about that,’’ Nova said of the fifth spot. “I know I am pitching well.’’

Nova might be ignoring the No. 5 competition, but he paid attention to Rivera last year.

“He told me, ‘If you don’t do what you are supposed to do, you are going to get sent down,’ ” Nova recalled. “He said, ‘You aren’t doing what’s necessary to stay. Do more.’ He told me that and I couldn’t even look into his eyes. When you talk to Mo, you have to be serious. It’s not like when I talk to Robbie Cano.’’