The Yankees came into this season expecting not to have to rely as much on Nestor Cortes as they had to during his All-Star 2022. It wasn’t a knock on the southpaw by any means, in fact; his breakout was one of the factors which led to tremendous promise for this starting staff. However, after drastically surpassing his career high in the majors in innings pitched, it was nice to have a bit of insurance not to push Cortes to a breaking point.
Now, entering the final couple of months of the season, with so much that hasn’t gone the Yankees' way, Cortes has returned from injury to a staff that needs him more than ever. Gerrit Cole can’t do it all by himself and he needs all the help that he can get. And in the southpaw’s first game back against the Astros, the outlook was about as good as anyone could have dreamed.
Cortes worked on a limited pitch count, as the lefty skipped a rehab outing in order to fill in for what would have been Domingo Germán’s turn. Facing a daunting Houston Astros offense featuring Jose Altuve, Yordan Alvarez, and more, Nasty Nestor pitched a strong four innings in leading the Yankees to a 3-1 win.
First and foremost, what stood out about Cortes’ outing was his increased velocity. He sat at 93 mph on his four-seamer and 88.3 on his cutter, which was 1.5 and 1.8 mph higher than his season average, respectively.
It’s important to consider that Cortes knew from the jump that he was only going to throw around 60 pitches, which means we can possibly chalk some of this to him being a little more amped up than usual knowing he wouldn’t go that long. However, even so, it’ll be interesting to monitor where he sits in his next few starts.
Working with a harder heater, Cortes made the most out of it, earning 8 of his 17 whiffs on the day with that pitch. Overall, the Houston bats swung at that pitch 15 times and whiffed on the majority of them.
Notching just a single hit across Cortes’ four innings of work, the Astros’ offense struggled to do so much as put the ball in play. They actually only did so only five times, across Nestor’s 64 pitches, with just one hard-hit ball: Altuve’s solo shot.
Pitching at an increased velocity, Cortes proved too nasty, as the southpaw earned two-thirds of his outs via way of the K (8 of 12).
Nestor Cortes, K'ing the Side.— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 5, 2023
8Ks in 4 innings. pic.twitter.com/iUdsHT8Uxq
As stated above, the limited pitch count was established ahead of the game, and it helps explain why manager Aaron Boone making the early call to the bullpen, even though his starter was cruising across four frames. Ultimately, due to the strength of this team’s ‘pen, it wasn’t an issue, as Yankees relievers tossed five scoreless frames to complete the 3-1 victory.
The organization is dealing with the massive struggles of Luis Severino, and a disappointing start by Carlos Rodón to his Yankees’ career. It’s clear that this team will need to rely on Cortes more than it thought it would ahead of the season. That’s not to even mention the Germán incident, which accelerated Cortes’ return outing in the first place.
Following this return, Cortes should make his next start on Friday in Miami, when the Yankees begin the first of three against Wild Card contending Marlins. He’ll potentially face the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner, Sandy Alcantara. We’ll keep an alert eye on the velocity for that one.