Nestor Cortes is an All-Star lock, a legit Cy Young candidate and arguably the Yankees’ ace.
But despite all that success, dating back to last season’s (second) pinstriped debut, why does it seem reasonable to ask if the dazzling persona of “Nasty Nestor” is sustainable for the long haul?
Maybe because that’s the nature of life in the majors, a tenuous existence where careers can be fragile. And when you’re as dominant as Cortes has been this season, to have even a single start go sideways -- as it did last time out against the Twins -- it can raise the question: will teams eventually crack the code?
This is hardly unique to Cortes. Even someone like Gerrit Cole, owner of a $324-million contract and five top five Cy Young finishes, occasionally finds his reputation under fire after a string of poor starts.
So Cortes was looking to rebound Wednesday night from an uncharacteristically bumpy outing against the Twins a week earlier. And through five scoreless innings, he seemed back on his Cy Young course. But after retiring eight straight, Cortes teed up a second double to Yandy Diaz leading off the sixth, and then got clipped on the side of his head when a return throw from Kyle Higashioka kicked off his glove.
Manuel Margot further aggravated him by pulling a 2-and-2 fastball inside the third-base line for an RBI double. Cortes’ third walk, this one to Randy Arozarena, ended his night, but the Yankees held on for a 4-3 victory. The tally: three hits over 5 1/3 innings, an earned run, four Ks, 91 pitches and a slight reduction in his ERA to 1.94.
Aaron Boone said he felt that Cortes “ran out of steam a little” in the sixth. Kyle Higashioka expressed something similar, adding that he “seemed to be fatigued” and “overcooked” a few of his pitches. It’s worth noting that Cortes already is up to 69 2/3 innings through 12 starts, and his career-high is the 93 innings he threw last season.
“I think the at-bats got tougher,” Cortes (6-2) said. “And I think my command wasn’t there towards the end. But I felt pretty good body-wise.”
Unlike Cole, Cortes doesn’t have a stellar decade to lean on. His resume is considerably shorter, if not equally as impressive over the past calendar year. When the Twins dented him for four runs (in 4 1/3 innings) last Wednesday at Target Field, it bumped up his ERA from 1.50 to 1.96 and ended a streak of 19 consecutive starts of allowing three-or-fewer runs, the second longest streak in franchise history for a Yankees’ starting pitcher.
The only one better for the Yankees belongs to Russ Ford, who stretched together 20 back in 1910, when the team was called the Highlanders and played at Hilltop Park. The last time Cortes gave up as many as four runs was Aug. 15, and since then, his 2.45 ERA over those 20 starts is second-lowest in the AL and seventh in the majors (minimum: 100 innings).
But Cortes’ entire body of work for the Yankees is a total of 33 appearances (25 starts) that began in 2021, so not even a typical full six-month season, for what would be considered a healthy rotation member. That’s not a small sample size, but for someone like Cortes -- who transformed himself into this mustachioed wonder at age 27 -- the reward is the opportunity to keep proving his greatness.
“I think Nestor has a lot of experience pitching in a lot of different scenarios,” Cole said before Wednesday’s game. “Some of them haven’t been on this stage -- winter ball, Triple-A ... Just because there may not be a tangible track record for people to see, doesn’t mean that it’s not there.
“And he’s strong. So the combination of both those two things, and the curiosity, it’s just all part of him settling in. We all develop at our own pace. There are different cases and there’s no one way to do it. I think Nestor’s a perfect case in point.”
The journey is a big part of the reason why Cortes is the crafty pitcher that took the mound Wednesday night against the Rays. It took him being a 36th-round draft pick by the Yankees nearly a decade ago, then bouncing from the Orioles to the Yankees to the Mariners and back to the Bronx again before the transformation was complete.
Over that time, Cortes developed all of the weapons now at his disposal -- the deception, the change of speeds, the varying delivery tempos, the occasional side-arming motion, the mustache. Cortes sharpened these skills during a prolonged test run. It all works because this is what he designed it to do.
“I think his path is definitely a source of strength for him and something that he absolutely draws on,” Boone said. “It’s part of his toughness and resolve.”
Cortes managed to mostly stay on that path Wednesday night.