NEW YORK — Nestor Cortes is a former 36th-round pick who, even after finding moderate success in 2021, phoned New York Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake this offseason to confirm his place as a starting pitcher with the club.
The Yankees assured Cortes they believed in his ability and the left-hander consistently validated their viewpoint during the team’s 99-win regular season in 2022.
Cortes gets a chance to pitch the host Yankees to a 2-0 lead in the American League Division Series against the Cleveland Guardians on Thursday. However, heavy rain is forecast for New York and could push the game to Friday.
The Yankees began the series with a 4-1 victory on Tuesday, when Gerrit Cole allowed one run in 6 1/3 innings while Harrison Bader and Anthony Rizzo each homered.
“That would be an honor to do so,” Cortes said Wednesday. “… To get that second-game win is going to be huge for us. We are going to have the series on a chokehold like everybody says, and it gives us a better opportunity to advance. For me to have that opportunity and to go out there and to give the best chance that I can give to the team for a W is going to be amazing.”
Regardless of when he pitches and under whatever conditions, the Yankees are hoping to see more of what Cortes achieved during the regular season. Cortes, making his 2022 postseason debut, went 12-4 with a 2.44 ERA in 28 starts while pitching a career-high 158 1/3 innings and getting 163 strikeouts. He ended the season by going 3-0 with a 1.32 ERA over his final five starts — allowing only two hits over 13 1/3 scoreless frames in his last two.
“He looks like you and I,” New York manager Aaron Boone said Wednesday. “You feel like you could relate to him. You feel like you could probably do what he does — you can’t.
“He, in a lot of ways, was an underdog, was a low-round pick that wasn’t a prospect necessarily that’s kind of found his way to, you know, being an All-Star pitcher. So that is, I think, (a) story people can get behind.”
Cortes shined for the Yankees, who also saw him pitch to a 2.90 ERA in 22 games (14 starts) in 2021.
Cleveland will counter Cortes’ craftiness by starting Shane Bieber (1-0, 1.17 ERA postseason; 13-8, 2.88 regular season), who opened the playoffs by allowing one run and three hits in 7 2/3 innings against Tampa Bay in the wild-card round.
Bieber’s dynamic performance continued a strong run for the 2020 Cy Young Award winner. He ended the regular season by going 5-0 over his final six starts. Bieber’s return to form is coming after he was limited to 16 starts in 2021 with a shoulder injury.
Cleveland is hoping Bieber’s second postseason start against New York goes significantly better than his first. In Game 1 of the 2020 wild-card round in an empty ballpark in Cleveland, Bieber allowed two-run homers to Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres while getting tagged for seven runs and nine hits in 4 2/3 innings.
“I think especially in this ballpark, they are able to hit for a slug and do it with guys on base,” Bieber said.
Besides getting Bieber going, the Guardians are hoping to get their offense rolling against Cortes, who is 1-0 with a 2.50 ERA in five career appearances (two starts) against them.
“Gives you looks that are different, and there’s some deception but along with the deception, there’s good stuff,” Cleveland manager Terry Francona said.
After averaging 5.0 runs in their final 30 regular-season games, the Guardians have been held to four runs in the postseason on homers by Jose Ramirez, Oscar Gonzalez and Steven Kwan while striking out 35 times.
–Larry Fleisher, Field Level Media