February 3, 2023

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Time, and a chance, all Nestor needed

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There are a lot of starting pitchers having really fine seasons so far. It doesn’t change the fact that there is no better pitcher anywhere than a 27-year-old, Cuban-born and Hialeah, Fla.-raised left-hander named Nestor Cortes, who was once designated for assignment by an Orioles team on its way to losing 115 games.

The kid gave up a grand slam to Josh Reddick on April 3, 2018, and then on April 9, he gave up another grand slam to Josh Donaldson, now Cortes’ teammate with the Yankees. Cortes was designated for assignment the next day. Four years and a couple of months later, he has a 5-1 record for the team with the best record in baseball, has a 1.50 ERA and has been simply dazzling every time Aaron Boone has given him the ball.

He gave the Angels one earned run, going up against Shohei Ohtani, on Thursday afternoon. He has gone 19 straight starts for the Yankees giving up three earned runs or fewer, something no Yankees pitcher has done in more than 100 years. Justin Verlander has been something to see, and so has Sandy Alcantara, so has Alek Manoah. Of course, there are other starters who belong in the conversation about who really is the best guy after a third of the season.

But when you add it all up, the best guy barely tops out over 90 mph, isn’t in the top 100 in fastball velocity, but he’s a master of spin and arm angle and magic and even mystery, at least party because of a delivery that occasionally has a start-stop to it that reminds you of Charles Barkley’s golf swing. In a world where velocity so often rules, Nestor Cortes pitches like an artist. The late and great Whitey Ford would have appreciated someone who practices the craft of pitching the way Cortes does.

A week ago, at the start of a big four-game series for the Yankees against the Rays, Cortes pitched eight innings, struck out five, walked one and allowed one earned run. It has now reached the point where you think stats like that should be on some kind of continuous loop with him. Here is what Cortes said afterward:

“I’ve still got a lot to prove, I think. It’s still early. I want to prove that I can have 30 starts and 150-plus innings, hopefully. I just want to keep my head down and keep going.”

It is not just the way Cortes pitches, a lefty who occasionally makes you remember another Cuban-born pitcher named Luis Tiant, El Tiante himself, once an artist himself on the mound, and a show. It is more than that, because of the journey that has brought Cortes to this moment. He was never a phenom as a kid, originally drafted by the Yankees in the 36th round of the 2013 Draft.

Four years after that ’13 Draft, the Orioles grabbed him away from the Yankees in the Rule 5 Draft. That spring he gave up the two grand slams and was gone. In April 2018, the Orioles sent Cortes back to the Yankees, and in June 2019, he managed to get his first big league win before being optioned to Triple-A after his ERA was nearly up to six runs a game over 33 games.

By November 2019, Cortes was traded to the Mariners in exchange for international bonus pool money. In two years, he’d gone from being a Rule 5 Draft guy to that. But Cortes kept his head down. Along the way, he went to the Dominican League and learned to throw a cut fastball.

Finally, in January 2021, Cortes made his way back to the Yankees. By last season, he had pitched his way into becoming a valuable member of Boone’s rotation, starting 14 games and finishing with a 2.90 ERA. And look at him now.

Gerrit Cole, the $324 million man — and someone who is touting Cortes as the best early candidate for the AL Cy Young — is the nominal ace of the Yankees’ rotation. But the true ace has been the short lefty who came to this country from Cuba when he was less than a year old and who is pitching like this.

There was an immaculate inning against his old team, the Orioles, earlier this season. There was a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the Rangers a few weeks ago. Finally, on Thursday afternoon, the first game of a doubleheader with Ohtani as his mound opponent, it was Nestor Cortes who was the pitcher to watch — dropping his arm sometimes and throwing an occasional curve ball that floated toward the batter like a frisbee and even varying the step-timing on his delivery as another way of throwing hitters off, all while still being one of the fastest workers around.

He never blows anybody away, except this one big important way: with the results he has been getting, all the way back to last season.

“He’s been great every step of the way,” Boone said a couple of weeks ago.

Great pitching, the best anywhere this season. Such a great baseball story. Sometimes the best stories take time. Like one of Nestor’s breaking balls.

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