Nestor Cortes’ brilliant return could not have come at a better time for Yankees

The importance of Nestor Cortes’ wildly successful return to the mound following a two-month absence goes far beyond both the lefty’s four innings on the mound Saturday afternoon and the Yankees’ 3-1 playoff-style victory over the Astros at the Stadium. 

If Cortes can turn these final two months into a flashback of his 2022 performance, the Yankees might actually have a chance to play playoff baseball for real, even with a starting rotation that is being held together by chewing gum and baling wire, otherwise known as Carlos Rodon and Luis Severino. 

They want Cortes in that rotation. They need him in that rotation. That is the truth. 

“I always thought that if I could be what I was last year, we could be in a pretty good spot,” said Cortes, who allowed one run on one hit while walking one and striking out eight in an outing that was limited to 64 pitches. “Obviously we have a lot of big names in the rotation, everyone is grinding and trying to help Gerrit [Cole] and Schmitty [Clarke Schmidt] out. 

“We’re trending the right way and hopefully Rodon can add to that [Sunday].” 

New York Yankees Nestor Cortes reacts before he walks off the mound after ending the fourth inning at Yankee Stadium

Domingo German is lost for the remainder of the season and Severino has been a lost cause for essentially the entire season. The rotation will consist of Cole, Schmidt, Rodon, either Severino or Jhony Brito and Cortes, whose return was accelerated when German was placed on the restricted list Wednesday. 

There is this, too: Schmidt, who has been the club’s second most effective starter, has already thrown 109 ²/₃ innings. That exceeds the 27-year-old’s single-season career high of 90 ²/₃ innings thrown in 2019 in the minors. The Yankees no doubt will be monitoring his workload the rest of the way even under these challenging circumstances. 

Clarke Rules, anyone? 

Other than the enforced pitch-limit, it was darn near impossible to tell that Cortes had made only two minor league rehab starts in his path back to The Bronx after he had been on the IL since May 30 with rotator cuff issues. 

This was Nasty Nestor, who in his first 1,001 pitches leading into this game had topped out at 94.7 mph on the radar gun. On Saturday, he hit 95.6 on a first-inning four-seamer to Kyle Tucker on his 13th offering of the afternoon. Velocity may not be paramount to Cortes’ success, but it is not nothing, either. 

Domingo German was placed on the restricted list by the Yankees for alcohol abuse.
Domingo German was placed on the restricted list by the Yankees and is entering an alcohol treatment program.
Corey Sipkin for the NY POST

“Definitely I felt like I was a lot stronger than I was three months ago and even to start the season,” he said. “The work we’ve putting in here really helped trying to get my arm in the same motion and feeling that I was in last year. 

“I’m probably searching for a little bit of velo to make my stuff a little better. But this 60-something days put me in a better spot.” 

Cortes averaged 93 mph on his four-seamer, 1.5 mph above his season-average. He induced eight misses on 15 swings at his fastball, 17 swings-and-misses overall. The Yankees, meanwhile, had just five swings-and-misses against Justin Verlander in his seven-inning reprise as an Astro. 

Indeed, the Astros struck out a combined 16 times against Cortes and relievers Ian Hamilton, Tommy Kahnle, Michael King and Clay Holmes. By contrast, the Yankees struck out only four times overall, their lowest K-rate since the second game of a July 1 doubleheader, 27 games ago. 

That is quite a feat for a lineup that had been struck out 11 times or more in five of 12 games from July 17 through July 31. That included going down 16, 17 and 18 times once apiece within that span. 

Nestor Cortes reacts as he walks off the mound after ending the fourth inning
Nestor Cortes reacts as he walks off the mound after ending the fourth inning.

“It’s just a few games, but the at-bats have been better,” manager Aaron Boone said. “Again, it doesn’t always result in a big number or a big score but you want to at least feel like you’re putting together good at-bats and the last three or four days we’ve seen that. 

“We’ve got to continue that if we going to get to where we want to be.” 

It’s going to be the pitching, stupid, just the way it’s always the pitching, stupid — and no, that is not a reference to Boone. Specifically, it’s going to be the starting pitching holding up its end of the bargain the way the relief corps — and core — essentially have all season. 

Cortes’ outing provides hope that the Yankees might be able to make a push even while compromised. They have taken two of three from Houston and are thus set up with a chance to win only their second series since the calendar turned to July, having lost six and split two while sweeping the Triple A-caliber Royals. 

The Yankees would like to build some momentum. But momentum in baseball generally equates to the next day’s starting pitcher. 

Sunday, it’s Rodon. 

You be the judge of that.

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