July 7, 2022

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'Legend of Nestor' grows with headfirst dive

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NEW YORK — Nestor Cortes beamed as he returned to the Yankees’ dugout after the top of the fourth inning on Saturday afternoon, proudly showcasing the dirt-brown smudge on the chest of his pinstripes like a well-earned badge of honor.

“Under this body,” Cortes announced to his teammates, “there’s a guy that’s athletic.”

That was the latest installment of “the legend of Nestor,” as manager Aaron Boone put it following the Yankees’ 5-4 walk-off victory over the Guardians at Yankee Stadium, in which the stout left-hander laid his body on the line for a daring putout.

The play occurred in the fourth inning, with Cortes facing Steven Kwan and having yet to allow a Cleveland hit. Kwan laced a 78.3 mph slider that was fielded by first baseman Anthony Rizzo, but Cortes was admittedly slow getting across the infield grass.

Rizzo led Cortes toward the bag with his throw, but recognizing Kwan was winning the foot race, Cortes opted to lunge toward the first-base bag with his glove. First-base umpire Mike Muchlinski was on top of the play, seeing both runner and pitcher bang their chins on the infield dirt, and called Kwan out.

“It’s scary when pitchers do something they don’t normally do, but he’s a good athlete,” Rizzo said. “He’s really fun to play behind. It’s easy to root for such a good teammate. I’m really happy for his success right now; his stuff is above average in this game. The way he commands and cuts it, sinks it, changeup, curveball — everything, it’s just plus stuff.”

Cortes laughed about the soiled uniform top, recalling a pinch-running appearance last July 30 in Miami when he’d had the opportunity to dive into second base, yet opted not to. This time, Cortes was absolutely getting dirty.

“I felt like the only chance I had was to dive,” Cortes said. “He’s really, really fast, especially from the left side. I was a little late coming off the mound. I felt like that was the play. Honestly, if I don’t do that, he’s safe 100 percent of the time.”

Cortes’ heart rate continued to pulse as he returned to the mound, striking out José Ramírez to end the fourth inning.

Though Cortes allowed a two-run homer to Josh Naylor in the fifth inning — the first runs that Cortes has allowed this season — he hung around to become the first Yankees starter to record a seventh-inning out in the young campaign.

“I thought he was really sharp today,” Boone said. “There was the one mistake to Naylor, but otherwise, even when he was missing — it was just off where he wanted it. I felt like he was really pinpoint [with] his command, efficient and working fast. And then he ends up turning that amazing play over there at first.”

Cortes struck out eight, walked two and permitted only one hit in his 91-pitch effort, becoming the first pitcher in franchise history with at least 25 strikeouts and fewer than 10 hits allowed through his first three games of the season.

“It’s great,” Cortes said. “It’s fun to compete here. I love pitching at home. Obviously, when you’re pitching well, it’s a little nicer. Hopefully I can continue to do so.”

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