Nestor Cortes misses no-hitter but still makes Yankees history

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Yankees LHP Nestor Cortes Jr. flirted with a no-hitter on Monday against the Rangers as he continued his breakout season

Nestor Cortes Jr. doesn’t seem like a pitcher who would strike fear in an opposing lineup. He won’t overpower hitters with a blazing fastball. What he will do is exactly what he did to the Texas Rangers on Monday afternoon at Yankee Stadium: pick you apart with surgical precision.

Cortes pitched 7.1 scoreless innings, not surrendering a hit until Eli White’s bloop single with one out in the eighth, in the Yankees’ 1-0 win over the Rangers. The left-hander struck out 11 and walked four over the longest start of his career.

Cortes left the Rangers guessing with his dazzling assortment of fastballs and arm slots. Without the elite velocity that has become widespread across the league, Cortes relied more on unpredictability and pinpoint control. Facing Andy Ibanez with one out in the seventh, Cortes struck him out with a perfectly placed cutter, releasing the ball from an over-the-top deliver. Leading off the eighth, he mixed things up, dropping down to a sidearm angle to get Charlie Culberson swinging for the first out with a 90.6 mph fastball.

Still holding the Rangers without a hit, Cortes got to an 0-2 count on White before the Rangers’ No. 9 hitter fouled off two pitches and dumped the sixth pitch of the at-bat into center field for a clean single. Aside from Corey Kluber’s no-hitter against the Rangers last May, it was the longest bid by a Yankee since CC Sabathia went 7.2 innings on April 10, 2010, and the first to reach the eighth inning at home since the Yankees moved into the new park in 2009.

Already at 94 pitches entering the eighth inning, manager Aaron Boone admitted he didn’t hesitate to send Cortes back out and probably would’ve let him go into the ninth. Cortes, who was lifted for Clay Holmes after giving up the hit, finished with 103 pitches, one off his career-high as he lowered his ERA to 1.41 through six starts.

Cortes’ fastball isn’t a thing of beauty. He’ll never be compared to his teammate Aroldis Chapman and his ability to hit triple digits on the radar gun. Cortes ranks 110th out of 121 starting pitchers with at least 20 innings this season in fastball velocity. But it is effective. Andrew McCutchen, who struck out in his only career at-bat against Cortes last season, wrote on social media after the game that Cortes’ fastball “plays up” as he messes with the hitter’s timing. It certainly impressed his manager.

“It’s a really good fastball. Don’t get enamored with the number. There are guys that throw 96, 97 that are good hitting, that it’s not a good fastball,” Boone said following the game. “Nestor’s is not good hitting. And when he can really establish the inside of the plate with his cutter off of that fastball, and now go away with his heater some or challenge you up in the strike zone, and have the ability to slow you down with the breaking ball. He just does a lot of things.”

Nestor Cortes is an unlikely Yankees ace

The fact that he makes it work is just as unlikely as his journey to the big leagues. Born in Cuba, Cortes moved to Miami when he was just seven months old when his father won a visa lottery. He was a 36th-round pick out of high school in 2013 before spending five years in the minors. Finally getting his first taste of the big leagues in 2018, the Orioles, who lost 115 games that season, didn’t think he was good enough to make their team. Cortes was playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic just two years ago.

He’s a throwback to the days before 100 mph fastballs came to dominate the league, an anomaly who relies more on deception rather than brute strength. His Yankees teammates gave him a nickname, “Nasty Nestor,” that he proudly had tattooed on his forearm.

This late bloomer, this outcast who was given away by three teams—including twice by the Yankees—is only the third Yankees starter in the last 60 years to give up fewer than six earned runs over his first six starts of a season, joining Hall of Famer Phil Niekro in 1984 and the future Hall of Famer Sabathia in 2018. He’s the only one in franchise history to also have more than 40 strikeouts at this point of the season.

While he came just five outs short of baseball immortality on Monday, Cortes is already writing his own history, one that is just as unlikely as any no-hitter.

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