Nestor Cortes #65 of the New York Yankees pitches during...

Nestor Cortes #65 of the New York Yankees pitches during the second inning against the Texas Rangers at Yankee Stadium on Monday, May 9, 2022 in the Bronx borough of New York City. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Yankees ace Nestor Cortes Jr.

How does that sound?

Through just over one month of the season, it is an incontrovertible fact.

The lefthander, who has been highly effective this season, threw 7 1/3 hitless innings before allowing a soft line-drive single in the Yankees' 1-0 victory over the Rangers on Monday afternoon at the Stadium.

“It’s just who he is,” said Anthony Rizzo, whose RBI double in the eighth made sure Cortes’ effort didn’t occur in a losing cause. 

Cortes took the mound for the eighth at a season-high 94 pitches and promptly recorded his 11th strikeout, fanning Charlie Culberson to start the inning. But Eli White dumped a 1-and-2 fastball to center for the Rangers’ first hit, ending Cortes' afternoon.

The crowd gave the soft-throwing Cortes a rousing ovation as Aaron Boone came out to get him and again when he walked from the mound to the dugout.

“I was going to let him go as long as he was efficient,” Boone said, adding  that it did get somewhat “uncomfortable” as his pitch count ticked up.

Cortes, whose refined cutter has helped him strike out 42 in 32 innings this season, lowered his ERA to 1.41 and his WHIP to 0.97 after allowing the one hit and four walks in 7 1/3 innings. He fell  one strikeout shy of his career best; he struck out 12 in five innings on April 17 against the Orioles (he didn't get a decision that day, either).

Cortes, whose cutter was particularly brutal on the Rangers, said he was aware that he hadn't allowed a hit going into the sixth. “It was special,” said Cortes, who came close to throwing a no-hitter in the minors a couple of times.

He said his body “felt good” entering the eighth but, speaking in the clubhouse after the game, when the adrenaline of the day had worn off, he added with a smile: “Now I feel like I got hit by a truck.”

The Yankees (20-8), who have won 13 of 15 and 15 of 18,  found themselves in a dogfight all afternoon against the Rangers (11-16).

The game was scoreless until the bottom of the eighth, when Aaron Judge singled with one out and scored on Rizzo’s well-placed double into the gap in left-center. Rizzo entered the eighth with two hits in his previous 30 at-bats. 

Aroldis Chapman allowed a two-out single in the ninth by Jonah Heim but Nick Solak flied to left, giving the closer his seventh save in seven chances.

Clay Holmes (4-0), who relieved Cortes and got Marcus Semien to ground into  a 5-4-3 double play on his fourth pitch, got the win.

The closeness of the score provided an additional element to the theater of the day.

“I was hanging on over there [in the dugout] for dear life,” Boone said of being locked in a scoreless tie. “It definitely added a layer of drama to it for sure. Obviously makes every pitch that much more meaningful and intense, which makes it all the more impressive. There’s no margin for error.”

Cortes, among the most popular players in the Yankees' clubhouse because of his attitude and difficult path to the majors, has long looked at his career that way.

Initially taken by the Yankees in the 36th round of the 2013 draft, it’s been a slow journey to achievement on the mound.

Cortes made his big-league debut in March 2018 with the Orioles, who had made him a Rule 5 draft pick in the offseason. Soon after that debut, Cortes was returned to the Yankees to little fanfare. He did not enjoy consistent success until early last July, when he began starting with some regularity.

With his low-90s fastball, funky delivery and numerous variations of that funky delivery, Cortes finished the 2021 season with a 2.90 ERA in 93 innings. In his last 15 games (14 starts), he went 2-3 but had a 3.35 ERA. In the eyes of Boone and the Yankees, that made him a near-lock for a rotation spot in 2022.

Not so from Cortes' perspective, though. Pitching coach Matt Blake recalled the lefthander calling him last offseason.

“He called and asked if I thought he had an outside chance of making the team,” Blake said with a laugh. “But I think that’s just part of who he’s been, kind of always the underdog and always kind of fighting for a job. That’s probably part of what makes him really good — he’s always hungry to get better. Obviously, we’re giving him some resources to help him with that, and he’s just taken ownership of it.”

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