Before Game 5 of the Yankees’ American League division series against Cleveland began on Tuesday, Manager Aaron Boone said he imagined his bullpen playing a “big role” in the do-or-die contest against the Guardians.
Nestor Cortes, however, had a slightly different vision.
Pitching on just three days’ rest — a situation made possible after rain forced Game 5 to be postponed by a day — the left-handed Cortes gave the Yankees everything they could have asked for and then some. He threw five innings of one-run ball in the Bronx while walking one, striking out two and allowing three hits over 61 pitches in a 5-1 win.
“It feels incredible to be able to do what I did today,” said Cortes, a 2013 36th-round pick who is on his third stint with the Yankees organization. “I didn’t know how long I was going to go out there. I was just trying to give my team innings, whether it was two innings, three, four, five innings. And it feels great to come on top and lead the team to the C.S.”
A case could have been made for extending Cortes’s efficient outing, but his performance did the job, keeping Boone from excessively relying on his bullpen.
With the American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros set to start Wednesday — and only one day off scheduled during that series — Cortes’s impact on the Yankees’ relief corps moving forward could prove just as valuable as his individual performance in Game 5.
“Man, what an effort,” said Boone, who used the right-hander Jonathan Loáisiga for two innings before turning to Clay Holmes and Wandy Peralta for the last six outs. “Honestly, going in, I would have been really excited about 10 batters.”
The right-hander Holmes, who pitched a scoreless eighth, also recognized the assistance Cortes, 27, provided the Yankees’ bullpen as the unit prepared for Houston.
“Oh, it’s unbelievable,” Holmes said. “Not just for this winner-take-all game, but just to put us in position tomorrow to be in a good spot. It’s very gutsy.”
Added catcher Jose Trevino, who caught the division series finale: “That was huge. Nestor went in and did his job. I thought he did it well. I thought he did a really good job today.”
As Holmes noted, the Yankees’ season was indeed on the line Tuesday. Yet Cortes said, “I’ve got nothing to lose,” after the game, a nod to the struggles he endured before transforming into one of the Yankees’ best — and craftiest — pitchers during the second half of last season.
Before contributing a 2.61 E.R.A. over the last two seasons, Cortes worked as a mop-up man who couldn’t stick with the Yankees, or even the Baltimore Orioles or the Seattle Mariners.
He recorded a 15.26 E.R.A. over seven and two-thirds innings with Seattle in 2020, and that was it for his major league campaign that year. This season, he became a first-time All-Star — and saved the day in the Yankees’ most important game to date.
“I was lucky enough for the organization and the Yankees to believe in me to bring me back in 2021,” Cortes said. “And from there on, everything just jump-started to what I’ve been doing today. I’m grateful for the opportunity they gave me. I’m grateful for everybody in the front office and coaches, I mean, down the line, for the opportunity to believe in me. I’m glad I was able to show it today.”
For Boone, there was never any doubt.
“Just the legend of Nestor,” Boone said, repeating a phrase he has used before, when asked what gave him confidence in a pitcher who had been designated for assignment twice in his career.
Those days of uncertainty are far behind Cortes now. Rather, he is relishing his status as a big-game pitcher — and already has his sights set on the next one.
“I’ve been in the gutter before,” Cortes admitted. “I’ve been down. So for me, this is just a cherry on top. Hopefully there’s more moments like this.”