Where’s the magic of Nestor Cortes: A disappointing follow-up to a stellar 2022

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In a state of disbelief, Nestor Cortes positioned himself near the rear of the pitcher’s mound, his hands firmly pressed against his knees. He was shocked to see the Yankees, who were smooth sailing through his first six innings, had a nightmarish turn of events in the seventh.

Nestor Cortes listened intently as his last pitch reverberated against the right-field foul pole, resulting in a three-run homer by Adam Frazier. Unfortunately, the Yankees’ typically reliable bullpen struggled to halt the subsequent onslaught. Seizing the opportunity, the Orioles utilized an impressive eight-run seventh inning to deal the Yankees a 9-6 defeat on Wednesday evening at Yankee Stadium, putting an end to New York’s five-game winning streak.

Nestor Cortes was not solely responsible for the Yankees’ painful 9-6 loss to the Orioles on Wednesday night. The game was marred by a disastrous seventh inning, which was so disheartening that even the rain-soaked crowd of 39,455 at the Stadium resorted to sarcastically cheering for the third out.

But, throughout this year, Nestor Cortes has been haunted by the challenges posed by the third time through opponents’ lineups and the concluding stages of his starts. These struggles have been so prominent in his performance that he candidly referred to them as “the story of my season” in a recent statement.

However, the issue was that Nestor Cortes couldn’t seize the opportunity to secure a victory, unlike his impressive performance in 2022 as the formidable “Nasty Nestor.” In the previous season, he not only took pleasure in defeating opponents but also had a knack for disheartening them by improvising unique deliveries during the game.

Nestor Cortes’ struggle so far

AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

In contrast, the All-Star version of Nestor Cortes would have efficiently handled the situation on Wednesday, securing the seventh inning without allowing a three-run homer to Adam Frazier that ignited the chain of events leading to the eventual collapse. Instead of leaving just six outs for the Yankees’ exhausted bullpen to navigate, with a comfortable 5-1 lead courtesy of Gleyber Torres‘ two home runs and another by Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Cortes, unfortunately, contributed to the growing predicament.

Nestor Cortes, despite holding a comfortable 5-1 lead in the seventh inning, was unable to maintain his effectiveness on the mound. This allowed the Orioles to make a comeback in a game that should have been well in the Yankees’ favor. Nestor Cortes had struggled when facing opponents for the third time through the order this season, as evidenced by his 1.503 OPS. In this particular outing, he had 89 pitches over six innings while striking out five batters. The Yankees starter gave up five hits and two walks. The Orioles hit two home runs.

Ryan Mountcastle added to the Orioles’ tally with a solo home run in the fourth inning.

The Yankees‘ disastrous seventh inning, marked by a collapse on the defensive front, not only featured impactful hits from three Orioles, but it also squandered the impressive power showcases delivered by Gleyber Torres and Isiah Kiner-Falefa.

Boone had full confidence in Nestor Cortes and saw no reason to hesitate in sending him back out for the seventh inning. The initial plan was to navigate through Frazier, who was the third batter of the inning. However, Nestor Cortes fulfilled the plan, but not in the desired manner for both himself and Boone. A minor warning sign emerged when Cortes issued a leadoff walk to Anthony Santander, and things took a turn for the worse as Austin Hays lashed a ground ball through the left side of the infield with a remarkable exit velocity of 109.6 mph. While a different placement could have resulted in a double-play, it was undoubtedly a well-struck ball regardless.

Following Santander and Hays, the next batter was the aforementioned Frazier. Unfortunately, Nestor Cortes’ 91-mph four-seamer missed its desired location, ending up elevated in the strike zone. Frazier wasted no time and launched the ball high off the right-field foul pole, resulting in a three-run homer. One could argue that Cortes was somewhat unlucky in that instance. Frazier’s majestic hit, known for its arcing trajectory, typically clears the fences only in Fenway Park and Oracle Park. Nevertheless, it marked the end of Cortes’s night on a disappointing note, leaving manager Aaron Boone pondering if he should have turned to other bullpen options slightly earlier.

However, it’s important to note that the Yankees held a comfortable 5-1 lead, and up until that point, Nestor Cortes had been performing exceptionally well, as described by Boone. There was genuine justification for the manager’s trust in him. Nevertheless, this game’s outcome was not solely determined by the decision to stick with the starter. It ultimately revolved around Cortes delivering the shutdown performance reminiscent of his past successes, which unfortunately he couldn’t replicate on this occasion.

A shadow of his former self

Charles Wenzelberg / NYP

Until the Yankees witness the resurgence of last season’s Nestor Cortes, the impressive performer who secured the eighth position in the Cy Young voting, he will continue to be a notable concern for the team. While he may exhibit adequacy on most nights, especially against opponents outside the formidable AL East division and when the bullpen operates flawlessly, there remains a lingering doubt regarding his ability to consistently safeguard a lead beyond the fifth inning. His reliability becomes questionable a bit too frequently, which raises valid concerns for the Yankees.

Nestor Cortes admitted that he had “high expectations of himself,” acknowledging that his ERA had slightly risen to 5.30, a figure comparable to his temporary rotation partner, Clark Schmidt, who held a 6.00 ERA. Nestor Cortes emphasized his desire to replicate his impressive performance from the previous year, acknowledging its remarkable nature but considering it irrelevant in the present. He conveyed his commitment to providing his team with a competitive outing, aiming to contribute to their scoring and ultimately secure victories. Nestor Cortes remained optimistic, hoping for improvement in the upcoming games.

Nestor Cortes fell short of his desired level of performance, and on Wednesday night, there were minimal indications of the struggles that lay ahead. He displayed exceptional command and efficiency in the initial six innings, surrendering a mere three hits, including a solo home run by Ryan Mountcastle, while maintaining a pitch count of just 77. Despite his difficulties this season when facing the opposing lineup for a third time, which resulted in a substantial 1.053 OPS against him at that stage, Nestor Cortes smoothly navigated through the sixth inning, recording strikeouts against leadoff batter Cedric Mullins and the third hitter, Mountcastle.

Boone acknowledged, “It was evident that it was a challenging and disappointing loss.” However, he emphasized that Nestor Cortes delivered another impressive performance against the opposing team. Despite the struggles experienced towards the end of the game, Boone encouraged taking a broader perspective and recognizing Cortes’ overall pitching display, particularly considering his previous outing. Boone found several positive aspects to take away from Cortes’ performance, highlighting the encouraging elements in his overall delivery.

Boone alluded to Cortes’ preceding performance, a commendable six-inning display that resulted in allowing only two runs during a 4-2 triumph against the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. Undoubtedly, it was a solid outing deserving of recognition. Nevertheless, the Orioles should not be underestimated, as they possess their own competitive strengths. The team had initially placed high expectations on Nestor Cortes to perform at an ace level this season, particularly in light of the early absences of Carlos Rodon and Luis Severino. However, Cortes has yet to consistently fulfill that role, and until he can sustain a prolonged period of excellence, doubts will persist—a predicament that significantly hampers the Yankees.

Nestor Cortes mentioned that he felt significantly better during the game compared to his previous outings. He noted that the ball was coming out exceptionally well in the seventh inning, displaying increased power. He also felt great physically, with his body in excellent condition. However, the Yankees starter acknowledged that the game took a rapid turn when he issued a walk, followed by a base hit, and ultimately a home run, which led to the unraveling of the situation.

Nestor Cortes’ exit marked a turning point in the game, as the Yankees were about to endure a disastrous eight-run seventh inning. While it may not have been a direct loss solely attributed to Cortes, it provided little solace considering the magnitude of the collapse and the overwhelming outcome for the team.

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