Another chapter in 'the legend of Nestor'

Cortes pitches into ninth for first time as Yankees capture opener at Trop

May 27th, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG -- Nestor Cortes had thrown 105 pitches over eight nearly spotless innings on Thursday night at Tropicana Field. As he took a brief moment to exhale atop the visitors' dugout bench, the left-hander’s brimming confidence suggested that there was more in the tank.

Yankees manager Aaron Boone ambled over for a temperature check, surely expecting that Cortes was game for more. Indeed, Cortes took a crack at his first career complete game, settling for his fourth victory and a standing ovation from a friendly road crowd in New York’s 7-2 win over the Rays.

“Once the adrenaline is running, you feel like you’re invincible,” Cortes said. “When I went out there for the ninth and all those fans were cheering, I had goosebumps going out there, for sure. It was pretty cool.”

Cortes has enjoyed a couple of double-digit-strikeout performances this year, building what Boone has referred to as “the legend of Nestor.” This was not one of those outings. Cortes wobbled a bit in the first inning, permitting a couple of hits, then never seemed to overpower Tampa Bay -- he just got outs, plenty of them.

“It’s special. It’s fun to watch,” said outfielder Aaron Judge. “He competes; he goes out there, and he’s not afraid of anybody in the lineup. You’ve got to like that. It’s fun to play behind.”

Shaving his ERA to 1.70 -- the lowest by a Yankees pitcher through nine starts since Hideki Irabu (1.45) in 1998 -- Cortes leaned heavily upon his cutter (45 pitches), four-seamer (41) and slider (19). He pumped the strike zone all night, even though he generated only seven swings and misses to go with five strikeouts.

When the Rays put the ball in play, they usually hit it softly (an average exit velocity of 85.2 mph, Cortes’ second lowest of the year) -- and at someone.

“I mean, that guy did a heck of a job,” said Rays shortstop Taylor Walls. “We had a good approach and a good plan coming in against him. You’ve just got to tip your hat.”

Beginning with Randy Arozarena’s one-out fly ball to left fielder Miguel Andújar in the first inning, Cortes retired 14 consecutive batters until shortstop Isiah Kiner-Falefa committed a throwing error to open the sixth inning.

No matter; Cortes got Yandy Díaz to hit into a double play, keeping the good times rolling. Cortes has touched the eighth inning in three of his past four starts after not doing it in 21 previous outings. By the end of the eighth, when Boone approached, the hurler sniffed what would have been his first complete game.

“He came to me in the dugout after the eighth inning and said, ‘How do you feel?’” Cortes said. “I said, ‘I’m going.’ He said, ‘All right.’”

The score played a part. New York led 4-0 after eight innings, breaking through in a three-run sixth that featured an RBI single by Judge and an infield single by Andújar that brought in two. Kiner-Falefa scored the fourth run on a seventh-inning wild pitch.

While Cortes thought about the Rays' second through fourth hitters, who were due up in the ninth, the Yankees pulled away with three runs in the top half. Boone said he decided that he “wasn’t going to let [Cortes] have a tough inning to try and get it.”

Wander Franco lined Cortes’ career-high 109th pitch into right field for a single, drawing Boone from the dugout. Cortes said he attempted to dodge the hook, pleading to Boone: “I’ve got more in me.” But this was not a discussion he was likely to win.

“He told me, ‘I know you do,’” Cortes said. “But if I complete that, it’s going to be 120-plus. We’re not in a position to go that deep. I want to keep pitching for the rest of the season.”

Cortes heard a loud ovation as he exited, leaving the inherited baserunner to reliever Wandy Peralta. He glanced into the seats behind third base, eyeing a cheering section of about 20 familiar faces -- family members and friends who drove up from the greater Miami area, all seeking a snippet of what could be baseball’s best story of 2022.

“I’ve still got a lot to prove, I think,” Cortes said. “It’s still early. This is a quarter of the way through the season. I want to prove that I can go 30 starts and 150-plus innings, hopefully. I just want to keep my head down and keep going.”