Yankees starting pitcher Nestor Cortes walks to the dugout before...

Yankees starting pitcher Nestor Cortes walks to the dugout before an MLB game against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium on Saturday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Nestor Cortes brought his hands together, rocked his front leg behind him, turned all the way to the infield — his body facing second base — and even made eye contact with Anthony Rizzo at first.

Then he struck out Ryan Mountcastle swinging.

A lot has been said of Cortes’ quirks on the mound — that old- school delivery he sometimes deploys that makes Luis Tiant's windup look vanilla and is as playful to fans as it is infuriating to opposing batters — but though that’s what everyone is going to see when they look at the highlight reel of Saturday’s masterful performance against the Orioles, that’s not what got him where he is now.

Cortes, who allowed one hit, two walks and no runs with 12 strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings, not only led the Yankees to their 8-0 win  but joined the ranks of the best ever — something that seemed nearly unfathomable in spring training, when he openly wondered if he had a spot on the roster.

In his final appearance of the regular season, he lowered his ERA to 2.44, the third-lowest by a Yankees starter since 1969, the start of the Divisional Era (minimum of 25 starts). It’s also the lowest mark for a Yankees starter since Ron Guidry pitched to a 1.74 ERA in 1978. And it's not just a little twirl on the mound that got him there. 

“He’s been huge,”  Aaron Boone said. “He does the one funky windup today — one of 90-something pitches — and sometimes I think we focus on that too much and get away from how really good of a pitcher he is . . . He’s a guy with really good stuff that’s on top of his game.”

Cortes’ accomplishments this year also make him the team’s ace — if not in name, then in spirit. He’s allowed only one hit in five games in which he’s pitched at least five innings this year — the first Yankee to accomplish the feat (it also ties a major-league record matched most recently by Michael Kopech and Cristian Javier  this year).

Cortes also is only the second pitcher in Yankees history to allow one hit in six innings or more in back-to-back starts. He's given up two hits in 13 1/3 innings in his last two starts and allowed two runs in 23 1/3 innings in his last four — a pretty good runway to the playoffs, all things considered. 

That said, Boone wouldn’t say whether he will opt to pitch Cortes No. 1 in the playoffs over Gerrit Cole, who’s been erratic and has a 4.80 ERA in September. “We’ll have those conversations,” he allowed.

Either way, Cortes continues to live up to the persona that’s endeared him to fans so much this season — saying after the game that essentially, he’s just happy to be here.

Drafted by the Yankees in 2013, he flitted around the majors and was out of a job when he signed a minor-league contract with his original team in 2020. On Saturday, Boone left him in for an extra batter in the eighth — partially so he could face a lefthanded hitter and partially so Cortes could leave to an emphatic standing ovation after recording the out.

“I think about it every day,” Cortes said when asked if he contemplates his journey in moments like those. “Obviously, I’ve got a chip on my shoulder every time I go out there — a sense of urgency when I go out there every single time. With the season, it doesn’t matter, every time I go out there and pitch, I always feel like it could be the last one.”

Unlikely — but no matter what, Cortes is making sure that nearly every outing is one to remember. 

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