Saturday, May 21, 2022

Yankees lefty Nestor Cortes flirts with no-hitter vs. Rangers thanks to nasty cutter

Monday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers played their third game in roughly 27 hours. The two teams were rained out Friday and Saturday, and they split a doubleheader Sunday. Monday was supposed to be an off-day for both clubs, but they had to play a makeup game because the Rangers do not return to New York this season.

The Yankees won Monday’s game 1-0 (box score) thanks to Anthony Rizzo’s RBI double in the bottom of the eighth inning. Aaron Judge raced all the way home from first base to score the game’s only run. That was not the story of the game, however. Not even close. The story was Yankees lefty Nestor Cortes taking a no-hitter in the eighth inning.

The man they call Nasty Nestor struck out 11 Rangers before allowing Eli White’s clean no-hit-bid-ending single to center with one out in the eighth, which ended Cortes’ afternoon. Cortes is the only pitcher in baseball this season to strike out at least eight batters while allowing no more than one hit in multiple starts, according to Stathead’s Katie Sharp.

“I was gonna let him go until he gave it up. Unless he started to walk a lot of guys and it got out of hand,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone told reporters, including The Athletic’s Lindsey Adler, after the game. That’s refreshing to hear given all the recent discourse about pitch counts. A single pitcher chasing a no-hitter in late innings is good ol’ fun.

In addition to the 11 strikeouts, Cortes allowed the Rangers to hit only two balls out of the infield all afternoon. Nick Solak flew out harmlessly to center in the second inning, then White singled to center in the eighth. On the season Cortes now owns a 1.41 ERA with 42 strikeouts in six starts and 32 innings. Simply put, he’s been one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2022.

Cortes, 27 and former 36th-round draft pick, bounced from the Yankees to the Orioles back to the Yankees to the Mariners and back to the Yankees yet again the last five seasons. He’s a journeyman, though he’s not a six-start fluke either. He has been a revelation since being called up from Triple-A last May, throwing 93 innings with a 2.90 ERA in a swingman role in 2021.

A little extra velocity and a reshaped slider have helped Cortes take his game to the next level, as has a cutter he picked up from former big leaguer Odrisamer Despaigne when the two were winter ball teammates in 2018. It wasn’t until this season that Cortes really started to embrace the pitch, however. He threw a career high 51 cutters Monday and the results were outstanding:

  • 12 misses on 30 swings (40 percent, MLB average on cutters is 25 percent)
  • 84.3 mph average exit velocity allowed (MLB average on cutters is 88.0 mph)
  • 6 of the 11 strikeouts came on cutters

The Rangers had a hard time making contact with Cortes’ cutter, and when they did make contact, they didn’t hit the ball hard at all. Cortes is using his cutter to both sides of the plate, up and down, and to righties and lefties. He’s very confident in the pitch. He also has a little more behind his fastball now, and has an improved slider. The man is not short on weapons.

It would be wrong to call Cortes a savior because the Yankees have been really good this season. They went into Monday’s game ranked sixth in baseball in runs scored per game, the defense is improved, the bullpen is very deep and powerful, and the four starters other than Cortes have a 3.00 ERA. It’s just a really good baseball team from top to bottom.

Cortes is a pleasant surprise more than a savior. He won’t maintain a 1.41 ERA all season because no one does that, but he looks like a reliably above-average starter, and getting an unexpected contribution like this is something that could elevate the Yankees to the top of the competitive AL East. Cortes was at his best Monday. He’s pretty good the rest of the time too.

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