Andy Pettitte pitched into the sixth inning before leaving with lower back stiffness, and the Yankees held on for a 3-1 victory over the Indians on Friday, finally owning the American League East's top spot for the first time since the end of the 2006 season.
"It doesn't mean a whole lot, but it's better than not being in first place," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "We know the goal is to be in first place on the last day of the season. We're playing good baseball, and that's the important thing."
While Pettitte's balky lower back gave cause for concern and painted a less-than-certain outlook for his next start, there were plenty of reasons for the Yankees -- winners of 13 out of 16 -- to feel good on a crisp, midge-filled evening at Progressive Field.
Lifted with two runners aboard and none out in the sixth inning, Pettitte yielded pitching duties to Alfredo Aceves, who continued his run of impressive relief showings by allowing only a sacrifice fly charged to Pettitte to escape that jam, hurling three scoreless innings of his own.
That put the ball in the capable right hand of closer Mariano Rivera, who preserved a Pettitte victory for the 58th time -- surpassing the tally held by Oakland's Bob Welch and Dennis Eckersley, the highest total of win-to-save combinations since the save rule's 1969 inception.
"It means we are old," Rivera said. "We've been playing together for a long time, that's what it means. It's great. I think nobody deserves that more than Andy. He's been a big guy for us, and I'm glad that I just follow and try to do my job."
Said Pettitte: "It's awesome. He's awesome. What can you say? I feel honored to have been able to play with him for as long as I have. He's a tremendous person and a tremendous baseball player."
Working deep at-bats against Cleveland left-hander Cliff Lee, the Yankees threatened in the first inning before managing to score twice in the second inning and once more in the third.
"It was important to work deep counts against him early and run his pitch count up," Mark Teixeira said. "We didn't want him pitching too deep into the game, although he still did. He's Cliff Lee. He pounds the strike zone in and out, up and down. He throws three different pitches for strikes, and he's a good pitcher."
The outing could have been even more damaging, as New York left seven runners in scoring position against Lee, but it got the job done.
"I think our guys put on good at-bats, they got deep in counts and made him work," Girardi said. "That's not something you can always do off him."
Derek Jeter had an RBI single and Teixeira a run-scoring groundout in the second inning, scoring Nick Swisher and Brett Gardner, respectively. Swisher added a sacrifice fly in the third to bring home Robinson Cano as Lee scattered nine hits, walking two and striking out five.
Pettitte had quietly tweaked his back on Monday in Arlington, a fact the Yankees were aware of. He was visited by Girardi and assistant trainer Steve Donohue in the fourth inning after Ben Francisco's flyout, but remained in the game despite the stiff back, blaming a soft mound for repeated slippage that affected his follow-through.
The left-hander continued working until the sixth, when he allowed a single and walk to open the frame. That drew Girardi back out on a visit, and Pettitte threw two more pitches -- both balls -- before Girardi and Donohue both came out to retrieve him and put an end to his 84-pitch night.
Aceves inherited the two-on, none-out jam and allowed a sacrifice fly to pinch-hitter Shin-Soo Choo before escaping with only one run scoring. Aceves limited the Indians to just one hit, earning him his second ceremonial clubhouse belt of the season as issued by Johnny Damon.
"We've got a lot of work to do, a lot of games to win," Aceves said. "It's baseball. Sometimes you do good, and sometimes you don't. But the thing is you never give up, work hard and fast, and try to hold the other team."
"His role, right now, is anything we ask him to do," Girardi said. "He's been really successful at it, and the young man can really pitch. He's got four pitches that he can throw over at any time, and he's got movement and can throw to both sides of the plate. He is very valuable."
Aceves' emergence even has the Yankees thinking back to the glory days of the dynasty, which it becomes OK to do when you glance at the standings and can sniff downward at the Red Sox -- if only for a night.
Pettitte agreed with a suggestion that Aceves could fill an important role much like Ramiro Mendoza did when Joe Torre was calling the shots from the dugout, while Jorge Posada pointed to the mound presence of Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez and said Aceves compares favorably.
"He's like a bull," Posada said. "He goes out there and really, he reminds me a lot of El Duque. It's just his demeanor and the way he goes out there and pitches. He's very good."
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.