This can play, right?
Nestor Cortes’ superpowers need not be limited to lifting these Yankees out of a funk and carrying them to October. Who says this journeyman can’t spark them all the way to a parade?
The crafty southpaw weaved some more dreams Friday night at Yankee Stadium, twirling a masterful seven innings to lead his club to a rare laugher of a victory, 10-2 over the punching-bag Twins. It was the Yankees’ eighth straight win and 30th in 41 tries. This stretch started in The Bronx on July 4, the second game of a Subway Series doubleheader against the Mets, when Cortes made his first start of the season and limited the cross-bridge rivals to a run over 3 ¹/₃ innings in a 4-2 Yankees victory.
That’s what we in the comic-book industry (no, I’m not really in the comic-book industry) call an “origin story.”
And whether you prefer “The Hialeah Kid” or “Nasty Nestor” as his handle (the latter is becoming a favorite T-shirt, along with the mustachioed caricature, worn by his teammates during pregame batting practice), Cortes carries the aura of some fictional creation when you combine the secret to his success with his very modest beginnings.
“All of a sudden, when you get a shirt like that, it’s like you finally made it,” Cortes said.
“He goes out there and he’s fearless,” DJ LeMahieu said.
A 36th-round selection of the Yankees in the 2013 amateur draft, Cortes was selected by the Orioles in the 2017 Rule 5 draft. He was returned to the Yankees in April 2018, traded by the Yankees to Seattle in November 2019 and let go by the Mariners last October. If the Yankees didn’t know what they had (How could they, after he posted a 5.67 ERA in 33 appearances for them as a 2019 bulk guy?), credit to them for taking him back twice, the second time coming this past January.
Because this time, he’s a completely different pitcher. His fastball velocity has jumped a mile per hour from his 2019 average of 89.5. He throws his curveball more often than he used to, and it’s a dramatically different pitch, its vertical movement sacrificed in favor of horizontal.
“In spring training, I wanted something sweepier, something bigger,” he said. “The Yankees pitching staff helped me out to try to create this pitch.”
Throw in increased velocity for his fastball as well as his legal on-field chicanery — the different arm slots, the quick pitches and the like — and you start to understand how this guy, who began the season with a career major league ERA of 6.72, carries a 2.56 this season after establishing one career high with his seven frames of work and tying another with his seven strikeouts.
“He’s doing a hell of a job,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He’s pitching with some off-speed early in the count, but then he’s got enough fastball and enough deception on his fastball to sneak it in and make it work. He comes from a little bit different angle, because guys don’t look comfy in the box.
“He really pitched. It’s not surprising to see how he’s had his success. … It seems like he has a really good feel for what’s going on right now. The stuff looks good, even better than what I expected.”
Said Aaron Judge, who contributed a homer (as did LeMahieu and the resurgent Luke Voit), “Every pitch is stressful when he works his magic out there on the mound.”
The Yankees hope to have Corey Kluber back in their starting rotation shortly, and perhaps Domingo German, too, two more postseason starting options to join Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Jordan Montgomery. Cortes might not withstand that game of Survivor.
How about having him in the bullpen, though, ready to unleash as a multi-inning weapon? That sounds tantalizing for the Yankees. It’s hard to see Cortes getting swallowed by the stakes, not given what he has overcome already.
“Obviously to get to the big leagues, I’ll take whatever I can get … as long as I’m up here and we’re winning games,” Cortes said.
Nasty, yet selfless. It’s a nice combination for an unsung hero who has more to offer.
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