NEW YORK -- The cutter is a bread-and-butter pitch for Nestor Cortes, and when everything is clicking right, the left-hander uses it to feast upon opposing lineups. Imagine his delight in the first inning on Monday, when his third and fourth pitches of the afternoon generated feeble swings from leadoff hitter Marcus Semien.
Cortes knew he had something cooking; so did catcher Jose Trevino, who nodded approvingly as he whipped the ball to third base. They decided then to let that cutter shine, and did it ever. Cortes carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning of the Yankees’ 1-0 victory over the Rangers at Yankee Stadium, helping New York become the first American League team to notch 20 wins.
“I felt like early on, I was attacking the zone real well,” Cortes said. “You never know how long you can go without giving up a hit. After the fifth inning, it felt kind of special. I was just trying to maintain it.”
The Yankees’ most recent no-hitter was against the Rangers, pitched by Corey Kluber last May 19 in Arlington, Texas. Cortes admitted that he began to steal looks at the scoreboard around the fifth or sixth inning, just to make sure Texas still had a zero in the hit column.
By that point, Yankees manager Aaron Boone and pitching coach Matt Blake had already huddled a few times, wondering how far they should push Cortes.
“I was getting kind of in that nervous zone, but I was going to let him go until he totally gave it up,” Boone said.
The no-hit bid ended in the eighth, as No. 9 hitter Eli White punched a clean single into center field on Cortes’ 103rd and final pitch, drawing Boone from the dugout. Cortes received no run support in the no-decision, but he did accept a warm standing ovation from the matinee crowd after registering 11 strikeouts against four walks.
“It’s just who he is. He’s been throwing like that since I got here,” said first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who drove in the game’s only run with an eighth-inning double that chased Aaron Judge home from first base. “He’s very confident and has a relaxed demeanor about him. He’s fun to play behind.”
A 27-year-old journeyman who relies on changing speeds and deliveries and reported to Spring Training unsure of his place on the roster, Cortes is the first pitcher in Yankees history with at least 40 strikeouts and six earned runs or fewer allowed through his first six games of a season.
Monday’s performance marked a bounceback to the level that Cortes exhibited through his first three starts of the season, when he pitched to a 1.15 ERA and allowed two earned runs over 15 2/3 innings (All-Star team, anyone?).
The Royals and Blue Jays nicked Cortes for four runs (three earned) on 12 hits and four walks over his next two starts, with opponents making better contact against his cutter (5-for-12 with four doubles and a home run, compared to 2-for-25 with an extra-base hit in his first three starts). Yet from the dugout, Boone could tell that Monday would be different. Cortes threw 51 cutters, generating 11 swings and misses (37%).
“First one of the game to Semien, it just disappeared over there,” Boone said. “It looked like a Steve Carlton slider over there. Semien had a beat on it and it just disappeared under his barrel. Some of the swings that were taken against it, we knew he had his good one rolling today.”
Texas threatened to break the scoreless tie in the seventh. Corey Seager worked a leadoff walk, Jonah Heim bounced into a fielder’s choice and Nick Solak also walked. A visit from Blake settled Cortes, who recovered to post a strikeout and a groundout to keep the Rangers off the board.
“It was definitely getting to a point where we were getting a little uncomfortable,” Blake said, “knowing if he got through that [eighth] inning, we’re staring at 115, 120 pitches. We were trusting that he was going to be honest with us about how he felt, but we were going to have to make a hard decision at some point.”
So continues the “Legend of Nestor,” as Boone put it a few starts back, this mustachioed hero who proudly wears a T-shirt with a Super Mario Bros.-ized likeness of himself behind the clubhouse doors.
Cortes understands why his teammates and others find it so easy to root for a 36th-round Draft selection out of high school from Hialeah, Fla., who found himself while bouncing from the Orioles to the Yankees to the Mariners before winding up in New York again -- this time seemingly to stay.
“The three years -- ‘18, ’19 and ’20 -- were pretty rough on me,” Cortes said. “After ’20, I discovered some stuff on my pitches. I knew what I had to be. The fastball and cutter have been the two weapons for me; location has been big and the bump in velo has helped me out too.”
His funky arsenal may be a throwback (Luis Tiant counts himself as a Nasty Nestor fan), but this is no smoke-and-mirrors act. Since the beginning of the 2021 season, Cortes’ 2.52 ERA is the best in the AL (min. 120 innings), and his .207 opponents' batting average is the AL’s third-best.
“I’ve been playing baseball since I was four,” Cortes said. “I feel like that’s the only thing I know how to do. I came out of high school; I don’t have anything to fall back on, so I was going to ride this as long as I could. Thankfully it started clicking last year, and hopefully I can continue to do it.”