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Nova fans 10 over 7 2/3 stellar frames

CHICAGO -- Now that they're all done in Chicago, the Yankees will make their way to Fenway Park for what is easily their most important series yet.

They couldn't have asked for any more momentum.

On Thursday night -- less than 24 hours before beginning a weekend series against the Red Sox -- the Yankees matched their longest winning streak of the season at seven, moved into a first-place tie after Boston's loss to the Indians, and got a 7-2 win on the heels of an Ivan Nova start that was every bit as dominant as it was important.

Yeah, the Yankees are feeling good these days. They showed it postgame at U.S. Cellular Field, where the visiting clubhouse burst with laugher when music off Nick Swisher's new kids album, "Believe," blared from the speakers.

And they've shown it with their play.

"It's just fitting," first baseman Mark Teixeira said about being tied for first with the Red Sox in the American League East before starting a three-game set against them on Friday. "We're supposed to be battling with these guys, we knew it was going to be a tough year in our division, and it's proved to be that. They're a great team, we're playing well right now, and it's going to be a fun series."

But it won't be a fun next few hours for Joe Girardi.

Thanks to Nova, the Yankees' skipper has a tough decision on his hands.

Nova, who made a solid big league return last weekend and remained in the rotation this week, limited the spiraling White Sox to one run on six hits in 7 2/3 innings to run his season ERA to 3.81 and prove that he has every right to stay in the big leagues.

Girardi opted to go with six starters this week, which meant Nova would get another start and would essentially compete with Phil Hughes for the right to stay in the rotation. Hughes answered the challenge with six shutout innings in a rain-shortened start on Tuesday, and he was rewarded with another turn next week.

Then Nova staked his claim.

"He loves to compete," said Girardi, who's still undecided on what to do with Nova. "He's not scared of situations, and he's grown up a lot."

The 24-year-old Nova -- who limited the Orioles to two runs in seven innings in his big league return on Saturday -- struck out a career-high 10, walked none and put just one runner in scoring position on this night.

He recorded the first two outs in the eighth, then exited the game with 102 pitches (70 for strikes) after giving up a single to Brent Morel.

Talking the day before his big start, Nova seemed cool and collected. He talked about blocking out ramifications, about loving this game too much to feel any pressure, and about how all he wants to do is stay in the big leagues -- whether that be as a starter or a reliever.

Then he went out and showed it.

"I just like his attitude out there," said catcher Russell Martin, who blasted a long three-run homer in the ninth that put the game out of reach. "He's focused, he's competitive, and it's every pitch. He's in the game all the time. I like it, I appreciate it."

It wasn't too long ago that Nova experienced the pain of being sent down despite attaining success.

On July 3, Nova was optioned despite going 4-0 with a 3.41 ERA in his pervious five starts in order to eventually accommodate Hughes' return from the disabled list. Now, it's A.J. Burnett who has struggled, going 0-3 with a 6.00 ERA since the start of July. But he and his $82.5 million contract don't figure to go anywhere. Burnett is lined up to start on Wednesday.

And Nova's future remains undecided.

"I'm not worried about what's going on behind me, I just worry about doing my job," Nova said. "When you have a day like today, I'm not going to lie, it's hard to think that you have to go down. But I'm going to try to keep my mind clear."

Offensively, the Yankees continue to roll.

Even with cleanup hitter Alex Rodriguez still out after knee surgery, they've averaged nine runs per game during their seven-game winning streak. In this series, they homered seven times and outscored the White Sox 34-11. And in the finale, Martin matched his career high with four RBIs.

Against White Sox starter Phil Humber, the Yankees got on the board on a second-inning solo homer by Robinson Cano -- No. 18 on the year, a rocket that sailed just over the left-field fence. They then re-took the lead in the sixth, when Brett Gardner doubled, moved to third base on a Derek Jeter sacrifice bunt, and scored on a sharp groundout to first base by Curtis Granderson.

The play of the night then came in the bottom of the sixth, when Nova struck out Alexei Ramirez, and Martin caught the speedy Juan Pierre stealing for an inning-ending double play that preserved a one-run lead.

New York then scored five runs in the next three innings to pull away.

"Their whole lineup right now is hot," Humber said. "It's definitely a tough one to go through."

The Yankees completed their first four-game sweep on the road against the White Sox since 1976, and have won 10 of their last 12. They're now a season-high 26 games above .500 and have the most wins in the Majors (48) since May 17.

Ironically enough, that was the day after getting swept by the Red Sox at home.

Now, they'll meet again -- with the Yankees holding a share of the lead in their division for the first time since July 6.

"We've been chasing them for a while now," Girardi said, "and it just says a lot about this club and what we've been through, and how we've overcome some things."

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