Yankees starting pitcher Nestor Cortes (65) reacts after he strikeout...

Yankees starting pitcher Nestor Cortes (65) reacts after he strikeout Cleveland Guardians second baseman Andres Gimenez (0) to end the 2nd inning in Game 5 of the ALDS at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 18, 2022 Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Nestor Cortes often says he pitches every game like it’s his last — as if the skill and artistry that have keyed this career turnaround are liable to disappear the minute someone turns on the lights, the magic act over.

There are quirks to his persona that lean into that narrative: the iconic mustache, the jovial personality, the jerky little motions he sometimes deploys to mess up a hitter’s timing. In another world — a world where Cortes doesn’t display the breathtaking domination that fully dismantled the Guardians Tuesday — people would call it a gimmick. And on a team like the Yankees, perennial favorites, he reads as an outlier: the underdog who was nearly out of baseball before he did everything he could to claw back in.

That, though, oversimplifies what Aaron Boone calls “The Legend of Nestor.” The source of Cortes’ acumen is his cutter and his confidence, and that heater with the nasty backspin. But it’s also this: “I've got nothing to lose,” he said after keying the Yankees to a date with Houston in the ALCS. “I've been in the gutter before.”

For a franchise that has not historically known too much of the gutter, Cortes turned out to be a perfect pick for the deciding Game 5 of the ALDS. These nine innings could have been the last of the Yankees’ season, so they went to a pitcher who’s spent a career internally battling the nagging knowledge that a future in this sport is never guaranteed.

Cortes built on his iconic 2022 Tuesday, starting on short rest for only the second time of his major-league career (the other time being a short spot start in 2019, when he was still less-than-Nasty Nestor). In a game that Boone surmised would involve heavy bullpen usage, Cortes, who last pitched Friday, merely shrugged and got to work — allowing one run on three hits over an economical five innings that took only 61 pitches.

Before the series, Cortes, who pitched over 158 innings this season — over 70 innings more than his previous career high — sounded like he was willing to all but collapse on the mound. He was open to pitching both Game 2 and 5, he said then. That was back in a world where Game 5 would have only been on two days' rest, and though the Yankees didn’t opt to go that route Monday, intending to instead start Jameson Taillon, the rain had other plans. 

Boone told Cortes he was starting around 10 p.m. Monday, about 18 hours before first pitch. He found him in the trainer’s room, since Cortes was already getting ready to pitch in relief should the rain abate.

“I think his mentality lends itself to a lot of things,” Boone said. “What we have always loved about him, even when he was on the shuttle between Triple-A and here and coming up in spots starting, mopping up in the bullpen, whatever role it may have been, he was always fearless, competitive, enjoyed playing the game. And I think it's critical at this time of year.”

Cortes actually looked better than he did in his Game 2 start, inducing a bunch of weak contact from the Guardians — two of the three hits coming off the bat of an equally-scrappy Steven Kwan. Not bad for a lefty the Yankees traded in 2019 for international bonus pool money, or who came back to the organization after the Mariners outrighted him in 2020. To hear him tell it, the Yankees helped him rise from that gutter. In return, he’s helping them thrive when things get down and dirty — or nasty, as the case may be.

“I came in with the responsibility in my hands to take care of the narrative, to take care of what my career has been,” he said. “I'm grateful for the opportunity they gave me. I'm grateful for everybody in the front office and coaches, I mean, down the line, for the opportunity to believe in me, and I'm glad I was able to show it today.”

Because of it, Tuesday won't be Cortes’ last game. It won’t be the Yankees’, either.

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