NEW YORK -- A standing ovation greeted Ivan Nova when he walked off the mound Tuesday after 7 2/3 scoreless innings against the Rays, but the cheers at Yankee Stadium might have been meant as much for manager Joe Girardi's ears.
A night after A.J. Burnett further diminished his case for a spot in a Yankees postseason rotation, Nova emboldened the groundswell of public support for his candidacy in a 5-0 win that will allow the Yankees to clinch a playoff berth with a win in either half of their split doubleheader Wednesday. If they win both games and Boston loses to Baltimore, the Yankees will be American League East champs.
Nova scattered six hits on the evening, only one of them for extra bases, to notch his fifth quality start in his past six outings and his 16th win of the season.
"He was outstanding," Girardi said. "His slider was good, his curveball was good, he used his changeup a little bit, he pitched inside. He did a lot of things right."
"I thought their pitcher pitched very well tonight," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "You've got to give Nova a lot of credit. He was very good tonight. You cannot take anything away from him. He's good."
Nova struck out just three hitters, all after the fourth inning, but kept the Rays from hitting the ball hard most of the game. When Tampa Bay did put good swings on the ball, Nova was the beneficiary of strong defense, especially during the early portion of the game. Right fielder Nick Swisher and shortstop Derek Jeter made nifty grabs in the first.
An inning later, first baseman Mark Teixeira made a diving catch on a line drive by Matt Joyce and tagged Casey Kotchman out at first base for an inning-ending double play. Eric Chavez, playing third base with Alex Rodriguez at DH, made several nice plays on slow rollers hit to third base.
"I just stood there and I watched the whole thing as a spectator," Chavez said of Teixeira's unassisted double play. "I was just like, 'Wow. Wow.' That's really all that was going through my mind."
The Yankees scored all the runs they needed off Rays starter Wade Davis in the second inning. The bottom half of the order strung together four straight hits to start the rally before Curtis Granderson ripped a curveball to right field for a bases-clearing double that put the Yankees up, 4-0.
Granderson would add another RBI on an infield single in the fifth to up his league-best total to 119 for the season. The center fielder's heroics helped the Yankees overcome 18 runners left on base, the most the team has stranded in a nine-inning game since 1956. It was the third time in the past 25 years a team has won a nine-inning game after leaving 18 or more runners on base.
"He was the one guy that kept getting the big hits for us," Girardi said. "You look up and we've got five runs, and he's got four RBIs for us and big hits all over the place for us."
If the first six innings Nova pitched served to prove his capabilities, it was the seventh that displayed his mettle. He began the inning by loading the bases with nobody out due to his second hit batsman and the second of three walks he issued during the game. But where last year Nova had let innings get away from him, this year, he has buckled down. Nova got Desmond Jennings to hit a weak fly ball to center field before inducing B.J. Upton to ground into a 5-4-3 double play to end the threat.
"Early on, it looked like he used to get flustered, it seems like," Jeter said. "Now with guys on, it doesn't seem to bother him at all."
"For being such a young guy, he's really, really figured it out early," Swisher said.
For a guy who was sent down to the Minor Leagues in order to make room for Phil Hughes just two and a half months ago, the numbers are staggering. Nova has not lost in his past 15 starts, a streak dating back to June 10. More importantly, the Yankees are now 19-7 this year when Nova starts, the second-best record in the AL by any team behind one pitcher.
And if the Yankees are to make a run deep into October, it figures they'll win a few more with Nova on the bump.
"It's unbelievable," Nova said. "I was planning on having a good season, but ... I'm not going to say this is too much, but it's really good."
Aaron Taube is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.