Yankees’ Nestor Cortes has proven he belongs after remarkable career turnaround

Nestor Cortes finds every angle imaginable to launch his miraculous throws.

But there can only be one angle in this Yankees column, and that’s Nestor Cortes himself.

The sometimes side-armed legend of Nestor grows so big it can barely be contained in the Bronx. Cortes, the former Yankees draftee in the 36th round who was released, DFA and for good measure traded for international pool money (which isn’t exactly a compliment because it means you’ve been sold for who knows what), out of almost nowhere yet is the Yankees’ best pitcher and one of the best in the league.

Yes, many people have been wrong about Cortes, including the Yankees twice, as this is his third tour with the organization. This time he’s a keeper, using his inventive moves, hesitations and fake heads to release some early numbers that not only come as a shock to a former mate, but no one in the legendary franchise’s history can match. – not Whitey Ford, not Ron Guidry, not anyone from those throwing-heavy late ’90s teams.

“A lot of people missed…just glad we got it,” Yankees star Aaron Judge said to sum things up nicely in the afterglow of Cortes’ latest gem, a nearly no-hitter 1-0 win over the Texas on a sunny day at 161st and River.

The 27-year-old Cortes rebounded so much that manager Aaron Boone called his many struggles after his masterful outing that included a hit in 7 ¹/₃ innings “the trip”. Conversely, the game and games seem to be easier off to the start for the regular southpaw who became the first Yankees pitcher to rack up 40 strikeouts with six runs or fewer in his first six starts of a season.

Nestor Cortes pitches Monday in the Yankees' win over the Rangers.
Nestor Cortes pitches Monday in the Yankees’ win over the Rangers.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

Cortes noted that his trademark cutter was “today,” a befitting understatement of his rags-to-stardom history. Boone, whose father, Bob, grabbed one of the greatest left-handers in baseball history in Philadelphia, was not up for such downplaying, calling Cortes’ cutter that day “like a slider of Steve Carlton”.

Two years ago, Cortes could never have imagined overtaking Whitey and drawing comparisons to Lefty, as his struggles continued and sometimes deepened. He got coffee cups in the bigs in 2018, ’19 and ’20 but posted ERAs of 7.71, 5.67 and 15.26. Someone else might have questioned his career path at that time. But, referring to baseball, Cortes said, “It’s the only thing I know how to do. … I have nothing else to fall back on.

Luckily for him, he won’t need a second plan now. After 103 masterful pitches, with the only hit on his last pitch 7 ¹/₃ innings in the game, he now boasts a league-leading 1.41 ERA. Cortes sometimes made the Rangers downright silly. Texas’ half-billion-dollar DP combo, the backup catcher who beat the cleanup and the others completing the lineup pulled off that single semi-bloop by No. 9 hitter Eli White against Cortes even though the match was played in a “Little League”. park.” (Not really, it was the venerable Yankee Stadium, but Rangers manager Chris Woodward seems to think scoring is easy there).

There was no apology, no hard feelings this time. Rangers realized they just had to give Cortes credit after his 11 strikeout performance. Marcus Semien, one half of Rangers’ new half-billion dollar DP combo, said: “He throws you off balance.”

Corey Seager, the other half, said: “He mixes the angles of the arms, he mixes the speeds, he unbalances you. It’s never the same. This makes it difficult to stay on time.

Nestor Cortes
Nestor Cortes went from journeyman to Yankees star.
Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

The time finally seems right for Cortes, who earned the respect of Boone and Yankees superiors with strong performances late last season and the nickname “Nasty Nestor”, which he reportedly tattooed on himself in celebration. It was quite a ride.

In the 2013 draft, back when they had all those rounds, 1,093 players were picked ahead of him when he was selected at Hialeah High, just north of Miami International Airport. There was nothing to suggest stardom at the time beyond Hialeah High, with which the Yankees had some history. A former Hialeah High student, Bucky Dent, brought them good fortune. (Like Nasty Nestor, he also had a memorable nickname, Bucky “Freakin'” Dent.)

Everything started to click for Cortes on his third round pinstripe. The key, it seems, was learning the cutter, the same pitch that made Mariano Rivera the greatest player in baseball history. Cortes learned the pitch from former great leaguer Odrisamer Despaigne, and now he boasts one of the best in the league.

He also has a four-seam that tops 93 mph (but “plays” in the words of Texas outfielder Nick Solak) and a penchant for competition from his background. Cortes has been through too much to expect too much (he even called pitching coach Matt Blake this winter and actually asked him if he had a chance to make the team when Boone and Co. held a rotation spot).

Nor is he ready to make bold claims. But there’s at least a satisfying feeling that can be seen as a big part of what’s going on in the Bronx. Looking pleased, he said, “I feel like I belong.”

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