Before going on the disabled list Aug. 23, Ivan Nova was dreadful, in danger of losing his rotation spot -- healthy or not.
Making his first start Saturday since coming off the DL, he looked like a different pitcher, bringing some good news to a rotation that badly needed it.
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With an improved performance from the bullpen, Nova's final line would have been even better, but it still wasn't bad.
And the Yankees weren't either, hitting two home runs and picking up two clutch singles in a 5-3 victory over the Rays in front of 46,856 at the Stadium.
"He was great,'' said Alex Rodriguez, who had one of those RBI singles. "That's the Nova we expect to see.''
The Yankees (82-63) moved a game ahead of the Orioles (81-64), who lost to the Athletics, 5-2, Saturday night in Oakland. The Rays (78-67) are four games behind.
Nova, 1-4 with a 7.28 ERA in eight starts after the All-Star break before landing on the DL with right rotator cuff inflammation, allowed four hits and two walks and was charged with two runs in six innings-plus. He struck out eight.
"He got his confidence back, I feel,'' said catcher Chris Stewart, also noting the return of fastball command that mostly had been lacking. "He knows he can get guys out again, and hopefully he carries that into his next start and does the same thing.''
For Nova (12-7, 4.85), who went 10-3 with a 3.92 ERA in the season's first half, it was about confidence and another word he's used a lot in 2012: focus, something sharpened by the time of year and stakes.
"The importance of the game, this game was really important,'' he said. "It's not that I wasn't trying to be focused in the past, but a game like today, especially coming back from the DL, you have to do everything you can to win this game. I came from my house mentally prepared to do it.''
Nova left with a 4-1 lead and received a loud ovation, doffing his cap as he crossed the first-base line. "I don't know the last time I heard that,'' he joked. "It was a good moment.''
Joe Girardi, who had Nova on a pitch count of about 80, had not expected him to make it into the seventh. "I was extremely impressed with his stuff today and his command and what he did out there,'' he said.
Of the potential impact a first-half version of Nova could have on the rotation, Girardi said simply, "It's huge.''
Nova was charged with a second run when Joba Chamberlain allowed a two-out, two-run single by pinch hitter Luke Scott in the seventh. David Robertson pitched a perfect eighth and Rafael Soriano escaped a jam in the ninth to earn his 39th save.
Nova, with a mid-90s fastball, improved to 5-1 with a 3.04 ERA in eight career starts against Tampa Bay. "Whatever was bothering him is not bothering him right now,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "The curveball was really good again and the fastball velocity was up.''
In his previous eight starts, the Rays' James Shields was 6-1 with a 1.90 ERA and had held opposing hitters to a .152 batting average. But Curtis Granderson hit a two-run shot to rightfield off Shields (14-9) in the second inning -- his 39th homer and fifth in a span of 20 at-bats -- and Eduardo Nuñez made it back-to-back blasts three pitches later.
The Yankees had gone 3-for-40 with runners in scoring position in their previous four games, but Derek Jeter grounded a two-out RBI single in the fifth to give them a 4-0 lead and Rodriguez lined an RBI single in the eighth to make it 5-3. "We're facing good pitchers,'' A-Rod said. "Those tack-on runs for us are very important.''
With 17 games left, the Yankees are in full scoreboard-watching mode, which is fine with Girardi. It beats the alternative. "This is where you want to be,'' he said. "You want an opportunity to play in the postseason. You can go back to Day 1 of spring training, we talked about how tough this division was going to be. It hasn't disappointed.''