NEW YORK -- Ivan Nova knew his day was done when manager Joe Girardi made his second visit to the right-hander at the Yankee Stadium mound on Saturday to take away the baseball, which Nova could not throw competitively for the past three weeks while on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation.
Nova arrived for his first start since Aug. 21 with a renewed focus and a fresh mind, he said, and it showed as he worked through the Rays' lineup. Frustration with himself mounted as Nova made his way back to the home dugout with a runner on in the seventh, but it gave way to satisfaction as a crowd of 46,856 rose to its feet, applauding Nova's role in the Yankees' 5-3 win.
The victory gave New York a one-game lead atop the American League East over the Orioles, who lost in Oakland on Saturday night. It also extended the Yankees' lead over the Rays to four games and provided momentum entering Sunday's rubber match.
"I don't know the last time I heard that," Nova said of the applause. "It felt good. I love it."
Although Nova believed upon being removed that he could still pitch as effectively as he did through the early innings, the ovation eased his emotions.
Girardi said that Nova -- who went 1-3 with a 8.59 ERA in five starts prior to landing on the DL -- would throw only 80-90 pitches, and the skipper expected five or six innings. Instead, he got 85 pitches over six-plus strong innings that set the tone.
"It's not that I didn't try 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," Nova said. "I came from my house mentally prepared to do that."
Nova allowed a solo home run to Evan Longoria in the sixth and joked afterward that he was confused when Girardi made a trip to the mound with no one warming in the bullpen, only to make sure that Nova felt OK and could continue to get ahead of hitters after the first sign of trouble.
Nova responded with his eighth strikeout of the day to the next batter, B.J. Upton, to end the sixth inning, but he gave way to Boone Logan after Jeff Keppinger singled to open the seventh. Logan's inherited runner scored, along with Ryan Roberts, who doubled off Logan and scored on a two-run single that pinch-hitter Luke Scott hit off Joba Chamberlain to make it a one-run game.
Alex Rodriguez drove in Robinson Cano in the eighth inning to add a cushion before Rafael Soriano secured his 39th save, helping Nova improve to 5-1 with a 3.04 ERA in eight career starts against the Rays.
"Against us, he's got this uncanny ability to throw his breaking ball for a strike when he wants to, and that's a big part of his success against us," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "He likes our uniform, I know that. He's very comfortable when he sees our uniform."
Early run support helped, with Curtis Granderson and Eduardo Nunez combining in the second inning for the 11th pair of back-to-back home runs the Yankees have hit this season. Granderson roped a two-run shot into the right-field seats for his 39th homer of the year -- two shy of his career high, set last season. But it was the first in nearly a year for Nunez, who has spent much of this season with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre but finds himself as the everyday shortstop while Derek Jeter nurses his bruised left ankle and is limited to designated hitting duties.
"It's very exciting to prove wrong all of the guys -- they laugh at me and say I don't have any power," joked Nunez, who has hit each of his past two homers off James Shields and remained in the lineup a day after committing a costly error in the Yankees' 6-4 loss.
A temporary new look to top of the order, with Ichiro Suzuki leading off and Jeter hitting second, added vital insurance in the fifth, setting up the decisive run.
Ichiro singled and stole second with two outs, bringing up Jeter, who drove in Ichiro to cap a nine-pitch at-bat after seeing 11 pitches from Shields in his previous trip to the plate. The single extended Jeter's hitting streak to 11 games -- more than half of which he has played with his ankle injury -- and gave Nova a 4-0 lead.
It was enough for the 25-year-old Nova during his first start in three weeks, and he left the Yankee Stadium mound knowing as much, even though he wanted to keep pitching.
"His confidence level was there; it was back," said catcher Chris Stewart. "He knew he had a job to do and he wanted the ball, and that's where we want him."
Steven Miller is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.