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Underdog Cortes proving '21 was no fluke

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NEW YORK — There was a time when starting rotations routinely carried a few guys like Nestor Cortes — lunch-pail everymen who would squeak by on guile and guts, mixing pitch speeds and changing deliveries to send opponents back to the bat rack.

Those skills have become rare in this computerized era, when spin rates often rule, but the Yankees are sure glad to have their throwback. Cortes aims to show that last season’s success was no fluke. The lefty is on his way after he helped pitch the Yanks to a 4-0 victory over the Blue Jays on Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium.

“He makes you want to root for him,” said Aaron Hicks, who belted a two-run homer in the second inning, “and it’s pretty easy to do.”

The 27-year-old Cortes limited the potent Blue Jays lineup to three hits over 4 1/3 scoreless innings, striking out five without a walk in a 72-pitch effort. Though Cortes was not pleased to be lifted two outs shy of qualifying for a victory, he understands his role on the pitching staff.

“As any starter, the plan is to go at least five [innings] and keep the team in ballgames,” Cortes said. “I ran a little short today, but hopefully, I can build off that and keep going this season.”

Last season was a breakout year for Cortes, a product of Hialeah, Fla., who heard his name called in the 36th round of the 2013 MLB Draft. Undersized at 5-foot-11 and without an arsenal to make scouts salivate, Cortes struggled to garner attention, finally making his big league debut in ‘18 with the Orioles.

“I think guys appreciate his story,” said Yankees manager Aaron Boone. “He wasn’t the giant prospect coming up. He’s had to work and fight and scrap for everything. He’s taken advantage of every opportunity.”

Cortes’ 33 games as a swingman for the 2019 Yankees produced a 5.67 ERA. He had a forgettable five-game cameo with the Mariners during the pandemic-shortened ‘20 season, after which the Yanks extended a non-roster invitation to big league camp — essentially, a free look.

A new version of Cortes reported to camp. He seemed to trust his stuff more, fearlessly experimenting in the middle of at-bats like a left-handed David Cone. Boone noticed that Cortes’ physical conditioning also had improved from his earlier stint.

“He’s a much better-conditioned athlete now,” said Boone, who compared Cortes to a left-handed version of former Expos and Nationals closer Chad Cordero. “That’s something that he has made big strides with over the last couple of years, which has led to a better arsenal, better crispness of his stuff.”

Cortes rewarded the Yankees’ faith by posting a 2.90 ERA over 22 games (14 starts) last season, tallying 103 strikeouts against 75 hits over 93 innings, with only 25 walks.

No one confused the mustachioed Cortes with, say, Gerrit Cole — Cortes averaged just 90.7 mph with his four-seam fastball last year. But his variety of arm angles and timing made that his best pitch, and opponents batted only .196 against it.

“I think it has a little giddy-up with my short arm action,” Cortes said. “I’m able to locate it pretty well. The combination of my pitch package really complements my fastball.”

Added DJ LeMahieu: “His fastball reads 90-92, but it plays up [like] 93, 94. It’s just sneaky.”

Cortes’ mettle was tested early Tuesday, as George Springer led off the game with a double and stole third base. Cortes evaded trouble, striking out a pair and retiring Teoscar Hernández on a flyout, and Springer became the only Toronto runner to reach third base against Cortes.

Toronto went down in order in the second and third innings, and Cortes pitched around a two-out single in the fourth before being chased by Matt Chapman’s one-out double in the fifth. Though Cortes would have liked to complete the inning, he remained on the bench to applaud as Clay Holmes struck out the next two batters.

“I think I’ve faced those guys a lot during my Minors career, and even last year,” Cortes said. “It’s fun to compete against them. They’re really good hitters. I respect them, and I just go out there to do a job.”

Cortes was still on the bench to watch Miguel Castro, Jonathan Loáisiga and Aroldis Chapman record three outs apiece, sealing the win. Most starting pitchers retire to the clubhouse after their final pitch; it’s no surprise that Cortes prefers to stick around, doing things a little bit differently than everyone else.

“It’s his character,” Hicks said. “He’s awesome.”

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