NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees are in a much tighter race than once expected, but they gave themselves a boost Saturday by showing some of the traits that once built a 10-game lead in the AL East.
Ivan Nova returned from the disabled list with a strong start, the Yankees hit a couple of home runs and picked up some timely hits and the bullpen shut down the Tampa Bay Rays for a 5-3 win at Yankee Stadium.
The victory moved the Yankees a half-game upon the Baltimore Orioles in the East, pending the Orioles' game later against the Oakland A's. The Rays fell four games behind the Yankees, 3 1/2 behind Baltimore for the second wild-card spot.
Curtis Granderson hit his 39th homer of the season for New York and Eduardo Nunez hit his first. Nova (12-7) allowed just two runs on four hits in six innings, in his first outing since Aug. 21.
Nova's outing was especially comforting for New York, as Yankees manager Joe Girardi called it "huge" for the team in the stretch run of the pennant race.
"I feel really good," a smiling Nova said, adding he blocked out some poor outings before his injury and emerged focused due to the "importance" of the game. "I was getting crazy the past couple days, and I was ready for this moment to be back on the mound."
Rafael Soriano put two runners on in the ninth, including a two-out walk of rookie Stephen Vogt, who was hitless in 17career at-bats. But Soriano recovered to strike out Elliot Johnson to end the game and earn his 39th save.
Evan Longoria homered for the Rays, who have lost four of their last five games to the teams they're chasing in the AL East.
Shields (14-9) had won six of his lastseven, but he allowed four runs on six hits in 6 1/3 innings. He gave up back-to-back homers to Granderson and Nunez in the Yankees' three-run third.
"Well, he pitched really well after that three-run inning," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "I thought that he had really good stuff following that."
Up 3-0, the Yankees added an important insurance run in the fifth as Girardi's lineup tweak worked out. Girardi batted Ichiro Suzuki in the leadoff spot for his second time as a Yankee, liking Ichiro's career success against Shields.
Ichiro singled with two outs and stole second before Derek Jeter knocked him in with a single up the middle for a 4-0 lead.
"It's a great at-bat," Girardi said of Jeter's at-bat. "You're talking about a really good pitcher. ... Jete put together a long at-bat to give Ich a chance to steal. It's a great at-bat."
Said Maddon: "I really didn't like that fourth run. Suzuki gets the hit, stolen base and then a chopper up the middle. That one kind of bothered me a little bit, because I knew that it was going to get increasingly more difficult to get back to that point."
Tampa Bay finally broke through for a run in the sixth, on Longoria's 12th homer of the season. The Rays added two in the seventh -- on pinch hitter Luke Scott's two-out, two-run single off Joba Chamberlain -- to close within 4-3, but Chamberlain struck out Desmond Jennings to end the inning.
David Robertson pitched a perfect eighth for the Yankees, who made it a 5-3 game in the bottom of the inning. Alex Rodriguez's RBI single scored Robinson Cano, who had doubled with one out.
Nova hadn't pitched in nearly a month, going on the disabled list with rotator cuff inflammation on Aug. 23. His numbers weren't exactly healthy in his last five outings before the DL stint, as he allowed 28 runs in 29 1/3 innings.
But he looked more like last season's 16-game winner on Saturday, shutting the Rays out for five innings before leaving to a loud ovation in the seventh. He struck out eight and walked two.
"Everything," Girardi said, when asked what was working for his starter. "His fastball was outstanding; his curveball was really good today; his location; he got quick outs."
The Yankees used their old weapon to jump on the Rays for three runs in the second, hitting their first back-to-back homers since Aug. 17. Granderson smacked a two-run homer to right and Nunez followed with a homer to left for a 3-0 lead.
NOTES: Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner has missed most of the season and underwent right elbow surgery in July, but he could return next week as a pinch runner and might later be able to play defense, Girardi said. ... Rodriguez's single in the sixth inning was the 2,885th hit of his career, moving him past Zack Wheat for 37th place on baseball's all-time hit list. ... Girardi said Jeter (bone bruise, left ankle) will not play in the field until at least Tuesday. ... Rays infielder Sean Rodriguez, who had been on the disabled list since Aug. 31 when he broke his hand punching a locker while with Class AAA Durham, was activated Saturday. Maddon said hitting could be an issue to start, but Rodriguez was immediately available for pinch running and defense. He ran for Scott in the seventh inning and stayed in the game at third base.
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