Aces out but fireworks still expected in Yankees-Astros Opening Day clash

Astros' Framber Valdez and Yankees' Nestor Cortes to start on March 28, 2024.
John Allen
Wednesday March 20, 2024

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Despite missing Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, the Yankees vs. Astros Opening Day is expected to see the heated rivalry at its full intensity. Both aces are sidelined with injuries. However, the excitement remains as Minute Maid Park gears up for a battle of resilient left-handers on March 28. Framber Valdez of the Astros will take the mound against New York’s Nestor Cortes, promising a compelling pitching duel.

Adding another layer of intrigue to the season opener are the debuts of two-star sluggers. Yankees fans will be eager to witness the power bats of Juan Soto and Alex Verdugo in pinstripes for the first time. Meanwhile, the Astros dugout will have a new leader at the helm. Joe Espada, formerly the Yankees’ third-base coach, now steps into the role of manager for Houston, succeeding the legendary Dusty Baker.

This fresh dynamic adds another dimension to the already heated rivalry between the Yankees and Astros. Since 2015, these two teams have met four times in the playoffs, with the Astros holding a perfect record. Both squads are considered frontrunners for the American League pennant, making this a crucial early-season matchup.

With star power on both sides and a new chapter unfolding in the Astros-Yankees saga, Opening Day promises an electrifying start to the 2024 MLB season.

Astros entrust Valdez to lead the charge

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The Houston Astros will hand the ball to left-hander Framber Valdez for a third consecutive Opening Day start, a testament to his growing stature within the team.

Valdez boasts a strong track record, particularly in the 2021-22 seasons where he solidified his reputation as an elite southpaw. The 2023 season, however, presented a more inconsistent picture. While he began the year impressively with a 7-6 record and a stellar 2.51 ERA in his first 17 starts, earning a well-deserved All-Star selection, his performance dipped in the later stages.

The latter half of 2023 saw Valdez struggle, finishing the season with a 5-5 record and a 4.66 ERA over his final 14 appearances. Despite the inconsistency, he displayed flashes of brilliance, including a remarkable no-hitter against Cleveland in August. However, the playoffs were a different story, as Valdez faltered, losing all three of his starts and recording a concerning 9.00 ERA. This stands in stark contrast to his dominant postseason performance in 2022, where he played a key role in securing the Astros’ World Series victory.

Astros manager Joe Espada remains confident in Valdez, praising his resilience and growth since his major league debut. For Espada, handing Valdez the Opening Day ball represents a significant moment, acknowledging it as a prestigious honor for any pitcher. He commended Valdez’s dedication and work ethic, highlighting his current status as one of the best-starting pitchers in Major League Baseball. Overall, the Astros value Valdez’s talent and leadership, entrusting him to spearhead their 2024 campaign.

Yankees field Cortes to put down Astros

Nestor Cortes is pitching to Juan Soto in a live BP session at Yankees' spring camp on February 20, 2024.
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New York Yankees fans will witness history on Opening Day as left-hander Nestor Cortes takes the mound for his first-ever Opening Day start. This moment is particularly significant as Cortes fills the void left by injured Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole.

Cortes enters the season on the heels of a respectable 2023 campaign where he amassed a 5-2 record with a 4.97 ERA and 67 strikeouts across 63 1/3 innings pitched. However, his journey to Opening Day starter embodies remarkable perseverance.

Originally drafted by the Orioles in the lowly 36th round of the 2013 MLB Draft, Cortes’ path to success was never straightforward. He faced numerous setbacks, including designations for assignments, releases, and trades throughout his career. Stints with the Orioles (2018), Yankees (2019), Mariners (2020), and finally, his return to the Yankees in 2021 illustrate the winding road he navigated.

Despite the challenges, Cortes distinguished himself with his unconventional throwing style. His use of varying arm angles and unique hesitations earned him a cult following among fans and ultimately landed him an All-Star selection in 2022.

Yankees starting pitcher Nestor Cortes
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Reflecting on his improbable journey, Cortes openly acknowledges his early perception as a fringe player, often considered a long shot for even a fifth starter role. Even the All-Star recognition felt like a distant dream, let alone an Opening Day start. He now expresses immense gratitude to manager Aaron Boone and the Yankees organization for this incredible opportunity to lead the team on Opening Day.

Cortes’ story serves as an inspiration to young athletes, highlighting the power of perseverance and determination in overcoming adversity. His unorthodox pitching style and work ethic have earned him the respect of fans and propelled him to the ultimate stage – Opening Day.

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