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Originally published Friday, September 14, 2012 at 7:45 PM

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Nova returns, pitches Yankees past Rays 5-3

Some critical reinforcements are still on the way for the Yankees. With the AL East race up for grabs, New York would be thrilled if those players are as sharp as Ivan Nova when they get back.

AP Sports Writer

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NEW YORK —

Some critical reinforcements are still on the way for the Yankees. With the AL East race up for grabs, New York would be thrilled if those players are as sharp as Ivan Nova when they get back.

Nova was downright nasty in his return from a shoulder injury and New York got back-to-back home runs from Curtis Granderson and Eduardo Nunez in a 5-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday.

"Even though he hadn't pitched a lot, you could see where his endurance level was, where his velocity was, the deception on his pitches," Granderson said. "He did an excellent job for us."

Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez each had an RBI single for the Yankees, who began the day tied with Baltimore atop the division standings. The Orioles were scheduled to play later in Oakland.

Evan Longoria homered for the third-place Rays, who fell four games behind New York with 17 to play.

"We don't have a lot of time," Longoria said.

One day after Yankees ace CC Sabathia lost his third straight decision, Nova outpitched James Shields and gave New York's rotation a nice boost. David Robertson worked a perfect eighth and Rafael Soriano got three outs for his 39th save in 42 attempts.

With two on in the ninth, Soriano fanned pinch-hitter Elliot Johnson for the final out - assuring the Yankees (82-63) their 20th consecutive winning season.

Asked what he liked about Nova's performance, Yankees manager Joe Girardi replied: "Everything."

"We've seen him do it before. We really didn't expect to get him into the seventh," Girardi said. "I was extremely impressed with his stuff today and his command and what he did out there."

Nova (12-7) missed a little more than three weeks with inflammation in his right rotator cuff. Making his first start since Aug. 21, he was charged with two runs and four hits in six-plus innings.

"He's good, man," Tampa Bay's Carlos Pena said. "That's one of the best curveballs in the game right now."

Nova struck out eight and walked two, improving to 5-1 in eight career starts against the Rays with his second win overall since the All-Star break.

"I was just hoping that coming off of whatever was bothering him, it would continue to be a problem, and it was not," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "He likes our uniform, I know that. He's very comfortable when he sees our uniform."

The 25-year-old right-hander was lifted after Jeff Keppinger's leadoff single in the seventh on his 85th pitch. He pointed toward the stands, tapped his chest and doffed his cap as he walked off the field to a grateful ovation from the crowd of 46,856.

Joba Chamberlain gave up a two-run single to pinch-hitter Luke Scott before striking out Desmond Jennings to preserve a 4-3 lead. Jennings whiffed three times in the leadoff spot.

"I was getting crazy the last couple of days because I didn't pitch," Nova said. "I was waiting for this moment."

Nova's fine outing marked the latest of what the Yankees hope will be several helpful September additions.

Rodriguez came back Sept. 3 from a broken hand and Andy Pettitte is set to pitch Tuesday against Toronto in his return from a broken ankle that's sidelined him since June 28. First baseman Mark Teixeira is trying to recover from a calf injury, but he's still sore and there's no timetable for him to get back in the batting cage, Girardi said.

Even speedy outfielder Brett Gardner (elbow surgery) is getting close to coming off the disabled list, if only to provide a potential pinch-runner.

Rodriguez added an RBI single in the eighth off Jake McGee after center fielder B.J. Upton misplayed Robinson Cano's deep liner into a double. Before that, McGee had retired 22 consecutive batters, 13 on strikeouts.

Raul Ibanez drew a leadoff walk in the second and Granderson sent his 39th homer into the lower seats in right field. Prior to that swing, Granderson was 6 for 56 (.107) against Shields.

Nunez, who made a costly error at shortstop late in Friday night's 6-4 loss to the Rays, followed with a long drive to left for his first major league homer since Sept. 21 last season - also off Shields. That made Nunez 7 for 14 with two home runs against the right-hander.

Girardi gave Nunez a little pep talk after his error.

"He does some amazing things," said Granderson, who called Nunez one of the fastest players in the league. "The things that he can do right now, he's one of those valuable assets that we definitely need."

Coming off a two-hit shutout Sunday against Texas, Shields (14-9) allowed four runs and six hits in 6 1-3 innings. "Big Game James" has been anything but that at Yankee Stadium, where he is 0-6 in his last seven starts.

Maddon, however, said his hitters need to help. He likened Tampa Bay's recurring woes on offense to a country-western song.

"Between your dog and your pick-up, we came up short again," he said.

NOTES: Longoria (hamstring) was the DH again for Tampa Bay. Keppinger started at 3B. ... Shields was 6-1 with a 2.22 ERA in his previous seven decisions. The right-hander dropped to 2-9 in 12 career starts at Yankee Stadium. He is 7-14 in 26 starts against New York. ... Alex Rodriguez singled for his 2,885th hit, passing Zack Wheat for sole possession of 37th place on the career list. ... Girardi rested OF-1B Nick Swisher and C Russell Martin. Both have struggled against Shields. Eric Chavez started at first base. ... New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh joined the Bleacher Creatures for "roll call," the Yankees said.

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