Nova, Sori, Ryan give Yankees hope

NEW YORK -- From one day to the next, it is difficult for the Yankees to know exactly who they are chasing in the American League wild-card hunt.

On one day it is Tampa. The next it is Texas. On Saturday, it was Cleveland, and by the middle of the week, who knows, it might turn out to be Kansas City.

And even if the Yankees run the table over the final seven games of the season, it might turn out they are chasing their tails.

That is the position they put themselves in by getting swept in Boston and dropping two out of three to the hopeless Blue Jays in Toronto.

But if nothing else, the Yankees have discovered a couple of things they can depend on as the 2013 season grinds to its yet-undetermined conclusion: Alfonso Soriano can hit the ball out of Yankee Stadium, seemingly at will. Brendan Ryan can gobble up anything hit within 10 yards to either side of second base.

And when he has his act together, Ivan Nova can pitch as well as anyone on their starting staff.

Soriano belted another home run, Ryan made a handful of sparkling plays at shortstop, and Nova pitched a complete-game shutout -- his second shutout and third complete game of the season -- as the Yankees beat the San Francisco Giants 6-0 on Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium.

The most important of those developments was the performance of Nova, especially since the Yankees can no longer fully rely on CC Sabathia or Hiroki Kuroda and are about to lose two-fifths, and possibly three-fifths, of their starting rotation to free agency and retirement this winter.

Soriano and Nova will be here next year. Ryan is a free agent but must be considered a possibility to return as a backup for Derek Jeter or, in a worst-case scenario, the starting shortstop for 2014 if Jeter is unable to go.

Nova was the AL's Pitcher of the Month for August but the staff's clown in September, going from 4-0 with a 2.08 ERA in the former month and 0-1, 7.07 over his first three starts in the latter.

But on Saturday, facing a Giants team that bore little to no resemblance to the team that swept the Detroit Tigers in the World Series last October, the 26-year-old right-hander reverted to August Nova, the same way the Giants helped Sabathia reinvent himself as CC2009 on Friday night.

The difference is that Nova's best years are still ahead of him, and even if the rest of this season does not turn out the way the Yankees hope it will -- the Rays beat the Orioles 5-1 to retain their hold on the first wild-card spot while the Indians, clinging to the second by a half-game, beat the lowly Houston Astros on Saturday night -- there is at least some reason to hope Nova can still be a major factor in the Yankees' rotation next season, and for seasons beyond that.

"Outstanding sinker, outstanding curveball today," Joe Girardi said of Nova, who allowed six hits, walked only one and struck out seven on a tidy 108 pitches. "Threw a lot of strikes and was ahead of a lot of hitters."

Most importantly, he put a lot of hitters away, something he was unable to do six days ago in Boston, when a much tougher and more disciplined Red Sox lineup raked him for five runs (four earned) in four innings.

That night, Girardi noted, Boston hitters fouled off a lot of Nova's pitches until they were able to get something to drive. On Saturday, the Giants' lineup, including defending NL MVP Buster Posey and World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval, was limited to just four outs made in the outfield all game.

Girardi and Nova both ascribed the difference from Sunday to Saturday to better stuff, particularly his breaking ball, but Nova raised the possibility that he had been tipping his pitches to the Red Sox last week, something he said he avoided against the Giants by concentrating on holding his glove in the same position for every pitch.

"I don't know if that was the problem, but I was watching the video and sometimes I do a little bit," said Nova, who said he discovered his tendency to turn his glove one way before throwing a fastball and another before throwing a curve while watching video of the Boston debacle.

Catcher Chris Stewart agreed Boston might have had an inkling about what was coming from Nova on Sunday, and without the help of a snooping third-base coach. "They were sitting on a lot of good pitches," Stewart said.

But there was no disputing there was more life on Nova's pitches Saturday.

"I was throwing strikes and working inside on righties and lefties," said Nova (9-5, 3.13). "I was making them swing early. It's something that you think about; I don't really have to go out there and strike out everybody. I get the quick outs so I kept pitching that way."

Nova was staked three third-inning runs when the bottom of the Yankees order loaded the bases with none out off Ryan Vogelsong and cleared the bases on a sacrifice fly by Ichiro Suzuki, a groundout by Alex Rodriguez and a single by Robinson Cano.

Eduardo Nunez added a two-run home run, his second of the season, in the fourth inning, and Soriano capped the scoring with a solo shot in the sixth, his 17th in 52 games as a Yankee; he had the identical number in 93 games with the Chicago Cubs before coming to New York in a July 26 trade.

"I'm not the only guy in this lineup that they have to throw a nasty pitch to," said Soriano, who has 34 home runs and 101 RBIs overall. "We have three or four more guys in the lineup. The pitchers have to work hard with those guys too. They get tired when they have to face me because they're facing Alex and Cano first."

Girardi called it a "great team victory," but there was a sense that with so little season left and so many teams still to leapfrog -- the Yankees started the day trailing the Royals, Rangers and Indians for the final playoff spot and were tied with the Orioles -- it may have been too little, too late.

There is one more game left against the Giants on what is surely to be an emotion-packed Sunday, what with a pregame ceremony honoring the retiring Mariano Rivera followed by the final regular-season start at Yankee Stadium by the retiring Andy Pettitte.

Then things get real again when the Rays, always a handful for the Yankees, come into the Bronx for three games that could write the final chapter of this season beginning Tuesday night.

"We're going about our business," Stewart said. "We have to win ballgames regardless of what anyone else is doing. If other teams want to help us out, that's fine, but we've got to take care of our business first."

On Saturday, Soriano, Ryan and especially Nova did their jobs exceptionally well, offering some hope for a Yankees future that at times this season has appeared bleak.

Now they have to hope that future is just days, not months, away.