Nestor Cortes emerges as dominant pitcher in AL East

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – At quick glance, the first observation for the quick start by the New Yankees could be a look at a very potent lineup. Despite several key injuries, the one player who seems to carry the Bombers, these days, is outfielder Aaron Judge. Engaged with the Tampa Bay Rays over the current Memorial Day weekend, the veteran leads the majors in homers, hitting above .300, and has the confidence of manager Aaron Boone to hit occasionally in the lead-off spot.

Yet, a careful analysis clearly shows a rather definitive reason for this early-season success. Carrying New York to the best record in baseball over the initial two months of the season, the starting pitching has been dominant. Just behind the Los Angeles Dodgers for the best ERA in the game, New York starters maintain two important variables; these are, consistency, and productivity.

Among the starters, three remain among the top, statistically, in the American League and, remaining healthy, could foreshadow another run at the AL East division title.

Though eight starts, righty Jameson Taillon is tied for third in victories (five) and eighth in the ERA (2.49). Then, there is veteran Gerrit Cole, coming off a brilliant eight-inning effort on Saturday against the Rays. In this one, he allowed two hits, and one run,  struck out 10 hitters, increased his season mark to 4-1, and dropped his ERA to 3.12.

Yet, the most domain remains lefty Nestor Cortes, a 27-year-old, whose current 4-1 record is considered both noteworthy and historic. His 1.70 ERA is the lowest among New York starters through the first nine games of a season since Hideki Irabu (1.45) in 1998. As well, Cortes has allowed three or fewer runs in 18 straight starts dating back to last season and that is the second-longest streak by a starter in franchise history. Only Russ Ford over 20 starts was better and that occurred between August 9, 1911 to May 27, 1912.

Cortes exhibited that mark of success by improving over the past three years. Since he signed a minor league deal with the Yankees in 2020, the native of Surgidero de Batabano, Cuba, who relocated to Hialeah, Florida at age four, has steadily perfected his game. After this nine starts this season, opposing batters are hitting exactly .180. At the same time, Cortes lowered his road ERA to under 1.50, and this consistency certainly caught the attention of opposing hitters.

“(Cortes) threw the ball as well (on May 26) as he has all year,” said Rays catcher Mike Zunino, who went 0-3 against the lefty in the opening game of the current series. “He commanded all of his pitches. He was able to work in the inside and outside a little more this time than in years past. He had great control of his cutter and made great, quality pitches when he needed.”

Through the opening two months of the seasons, Cortes clearly emerged as one of the top pitchers in the game. His efforts to date are clearly noticed.

“(Cortes) came in as one of the better pitchers in baseball,” observed Kevin Cash, the Rays manager. “We certainly saw why. We faced him last year and he was good. Looks like he’s elevated his game. He has a lot of deception and his fastball kind of jumps in on you. His cutter plays off that, and so he threw a really good ball game against us.”

In that effort on May 26 in Tropicana Field, Cortes went eight innings, allowed four hits, one run and struck out five batters.

More on Cortes … to show the effectiveness of his off-speed delivery, the average exit velocity was 85.2 MPH, and that represented his second-lowest among outings this season. The lowest exit velocity was recorded on April 23 against Cleveland (83.8). … against the Rays on May 26, Cortes reached a career-high in pitches. The 109 surpassed a previous high of 104 against Minnesota on Aug. 20, 2021. … also, Cortes has not allowed four or fewest hits in seven of his nine starts this season … Cortes’ next start is expected at Yankee Stadium this Wednesday against the Los Angeles Angles of Anaheim.

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