Nestor Cortes finds every conceivable angle from which to throw his miraculous pitches.
But there can only be one angle to this Yankees column, and that is Nestor Cortes himself.
The legend of the sometime-sidearming Nestor is growing so big it can barely be contained in The Bronx. Cortes, the former 36th-round Yankees draftee who’s been released, DFA’ed and for good measure traded for international pool money (which isn’t exactly a compliment because it means you’ve been sold for who knows what), out of almost nowhere for now is the Yankees’ best pitcher and one of the best in the league.
Yep, a lot of folks erred on Cortes, including the Yankees twice, as this is his third tour with the organization. This time he’s a keeper, using his inventive motions, hesitations and head fakes to post some early numbers that aren’t just a shock for a former journeyman but that no one in the history of the storied franchise can match — not Whitey Ford, not Ron Guidry, not anyone from those pitching-rich late-’90s teams.
“A lot of folks missed out … just glad we got him,” Yankees star Aaron Judge said to nicely summarize things in the afterglow of Cortes’ latest gem, a near no-hitter won 1-0 over Texas on a sunny day at 161st and River.
Cortes, 27, bounced around so much that manager Aaron Boone referred to his many struggles after his masterful outing that included one hit over 7 ¹/₃ innings as “the journey.” Conversely, the game and the games are seeming to come easier by the start for the everyman lefthander who became the first Yankees pitcher ever to rack up 40 strikeouts with six or fewer runs in his first six starts of a season.
Cortes noted that his trademark cutter was “on today,” an understatement befitting his rags-to-stardom story. Boone, whose dad, Bob, caught one of the greatest left-handers in baseball history in Philly wasn’t up for such minimization, calling the Cortes cutter on this day “like a Steve Carlton slider.”
Two years ago Cortes never could have imagined topping Whitey and drawing comparisons to Lefty, as his struggles continued and occasionally deepened. He got cups of coffee in the bigs in 2018, ’19 and ’20 but posted ERAs of 7.71, 5.67 and 15.26. Someone else might have questioned his career path by then. But, referring to baseball, Cortes said, “That’s the only thing I know how to do. … I don’t have anything else to fall back on.”
Lucky for him, he won’t need a second plan now. After 103 masterful pitches, with the only hit coming on his final pitch 7 ¹/₃ innings into the game, he now totes an ERA of 1.41, among the league leaders. Cortes made the Rangers look downright silly at times. Texas’ half-billion dollar DP combo, the backup catcher who batted cleanup and the others who fill out the lineup managed that one semi-bloop single by No. 9 hitter Eli White against Cortes even though the game was played in a “Little League park.” (Not really, it was venerable Yankee Stadium, but Rangers manager Chris Woodward seems to think scoring is easy there).
There were no excuses, no hard feelings this time. The Rangers understood to just give Cortes the credit after his 11-strikeout performance. Marcus Semien, half of the Rangers’ new half-billion dollar DP combo, said, “He keeps you off balance.”
Corey Seager, the other half, said, “He mixes arm angles, he mixes speeds, he keeps you off balance. It’s never the same. That makes it difficult to stay on time.”
The time finally appears is now for Cortes, who earned the respect of Boone and Yankees higher-ups with some nice performances late last season and the nickname “Nasty Nestor,” which he reportedly has tattooed on him in celebration. It’s been quite a ride.
Back in the 2013 draft, back when they had all those rounds, 1,093 players were picked before him when he was selected out of Hialeah High, just north of the Miami International Airport. There was nothing to suggest stardom back then beyond Hialeah High, which the Yankees had a bit of history with. A previous Hialeah High alum Bucky Dent brought them some good fortune. (Like Nasty Nestor, he also had a memorable nickname, Bucky “Freakin’” Dent.)
It all started to click for Cortes on his third go-round in pinstripes. The key, it seems, was learning the cutter, the same pitch that turned Mariano Rivera into the greatest closer in baseball history. Cortes learned the pitch from former big leaguer Odrisamer Despaigne, and now he boasts one of the best in the league.
He also has a four-seamer that’s 93 mph tops (but “plays up” in the words of Texas outfielder Nick Solak) and a competitive bent borne out of that journey of his. Cortes has been through too much to expect too much (he even called pitching coach Matt Blake this winter and actually asked if he had a shot to make the team when Boone and Co. were holding a rotation spot for him).
He’s also unready to make any bold proclamations. But there’s at least satisfying feeling that can be seen for being a big part of what’s going on in The Bronx. Looking pleased, he said, “I feel like I belong.”