NEW YORK -- Ivan Nova still enjoys some leeway in his status as a young starter finding his way in the American League East, but as the Yankees begin to heat up for a summer push, he challenged himself to keep pace with the club's surge.
One start after Nova loudly insisted his performance needed to improve, the Yankees couldn't have asked for much more. Nova scattered four hits across eight-plus stellar innings to defeat the Rays, 4-1, on Wednesday at Yankee Stadium.
"I had to step up. I had to do my job," Nova said. "I had to be better. Especially when everybody is pitching good, I don't want to be the guy [left] behind. I want to be the guy pitching good, helping this team win games. That's what we're here for."
Nova permitted a single to the first batter of the game, Desmond Jennings, then appeared close to untouchable for the majority of the night. He retired 12 straight after a fourth-inning walk, fueling the Yankees toward their 10th win in 13 games.
"I think it's important because he was somewhat frustrated with some of the things that were happening," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He just went to work and said, 'I need to do better.' He took it upon himself, and you like to see that."
Nova entered the top of the ninth with a chance at his first career shutout, but back-to-back triples by Jennings and B.J. Upton chased the righty. Rafael Soriano locked down the final three outs for his eighth save in eight chances this year.
The win lifted the Yankees a half-game over the Rays in the American League East, which continues to be led by the Orioles by virtue of their 2-1 win over the Red Sox on Wednesday night. New York has moved a season-high seven games over .500 at 31-24.
"We've played a lot of close games -- we've played a lot of heartbreaking games -- and that just makes us stronger," said Mark Teixeira, whose second-inning homer accounted for one of four runs against Rays starter Alex Cobb. "We had a tough stretch there [in May], and the last two weeks we've picked it up."
After Nova's most recent start, he stood in front of a locker in Angel Stadium and half-heartedly tried to enjoy the team's victory, despite the Angels putting up five runs against him. Nova owned a 5.60 ERA entering Wednesday's start and had allowed five or more runs in five of his last seven efforts.
Nova said that after the Anaheim start, Robinson Cano told him that he had to start pitching better. Andy Pettitte's 7 1/3 innings of scoreless, two-hit ball against the Rays on Tuesday prompted a similar push.
"Andy, even when he came out of the game yesterday, he told me, 'Your turn tomorrow,'" Nova said. "He was waiting for me to pitch today, even though he pitched. That motivates you when guys like that want you to do good."
Nova struck out five and walked one, throwing 69 of his 103 pitches for strikes against the punchless Rays, who have lost seven of their last 10 games.
"He pitched really well," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of Nova. "We have not been the best hitting team of late; I can't argue that. ... We just could not get guys on base in order to get him in a stretch long enough to do something. He was pretty much in command of the game."
Facing Cobb in the second, Teixeira belted a hanging curveball into the second deck in right field, the switch-hitter's 10th homer of the season. Cano laced a 2-0 fastball over the right-field wall in the fourth.
Cobb cruised from there, retiring 10 consecutive batters, but eighth-inning hits by Raul Ibanez, Nick Swisher and Eric Chavez chased the righty and offered more breathing room to Nova, who impressed pitching coach Larry Rothschild with what might have been his best effort of the last two seasons.
"He's a young pitcher; he's still feeling his way," Rothschild said. "You don't become a solid Major League pitcher on one good season. You go through some bumps in the road; every young pitcher does it, and it comes at different times.
"It's a normal process, it's a learning process. The important thing is that you come out on the right end of it at the end of the day, and that's what he's working toward."
Rothschild believes there may be something to the idea that the Yankees' staff, as a whole, is feeding off each good performance. Over the last full turn through the rotation since June 1, their starters have fared 4-0 with a 1.64 ERA -- including a season-high 22 consecutive scoreless innings that bled into the eighth on Wednesday.
"It's kind of hard not to be a believer right now," catcher Russell Martin said. "Everybody is kind of chipping in right now. It has been fun to be behind the plate catching these guys. They're making me look good right now."
Nova may not have playfully nudged Thursday's starter, CC Sabathia, on his way out the door. Then again, he didn't really need to. Right now, no one wants to be the one to get in the way of a hot streak.
"I'm glad they're pitching good and I'm glad I pitched good today," Nova said. "Hopefully, I can continue it in the next start and the rest of the season."