ST. PETERSBURG – Nestor Cortes has been one of baseball’s best stories this year, the stout left-hander fueled by guile and moxie elevating each start into an event. But the breakout star’s success comes with a caveat, one that could become more remarkable as the season continues.
The Yankees have spoken to Cortes about managing his workload, which played a part in manager Aaron Boone’s decision to make a pitching change after just 63 pitches on Tuesday night. Cortes surrendered three solo homers and New York’s comeback fell short in a 5-4 loss to the Rays at Tropicana Field.
“Right now, I’m concentrating on giving quality outings, quality innings,” Cortes said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 100 or 200 [pitches]. I think they’re asking for quality innings out of me. So I prepare every day as I do usually; for every start moving forward, I’m going to prepare the same, whether I have a short leash or a long leash. ”
A likely American League All-Star, Cortes has pitched to a sparkling 2.31 ERA through 13 starts, but Tuesday’s outing marked the second time in three outings that the 27-year-old did not complete five innings. Cortes is 1-2 with a 5.79 ERA over that abbreviated span, compared to 5-1 and a 1.50 ERA before it.
Cortes logged 93 innings in 22 games (14 starts) in the big leagues last season, plus 15 innings in the Minors and 7 1/3 in Spring Training, a total of 115 1/3 innings.
A popular theory once posited that pitchers increasing their workload by more than 30 innings per year are at greater risk of injury, but teams have been more aggressive in recent years. The Yankees, for example, increased Domingo Germán’s innings by more than 50 over the 2018-19 seasons.
Cortes has already thrown 74 frames this season, and Boone acknowledged that the club is conscious about keeping his tank fueled.
“Maybe that comes into play a little bit today, where he’s struggling to find it a little bit,” Boone said. “I’m not just going to push him through to navigate a heavy outing like that. I think Nestor’s in a good place where we’re certainly mindful of it, but at the same time, he’s going out and doing what he does. He’s going to routinely get us through those middle innings. ”
Said Cortes: “Aaron Boone is the boss of that. I feel good body-wise, I feel great. My arm feels good. Mentally, I’m strong. I don’t see why I can’t go into that 150-, 160-, 170-[inning] range. ”
Isaac Paredes and Harold Ramírez hit back-to-back homers off Cortes in the first inning; Paredes enjoying the first act of a three-homer performance and Ramírez connecting for the softest-hit home run (85.4 mph) tracked in the Statcast era.
DJ LeMahieu’s two-run single tied the game in the second inning, but Paredes struck again in the third, homering to left field. By the time Paredes’ spot came around in the fifth inning, Boone had seen enough, raising his right finger toward the bullpen to summon Clarke Schmidt.
“He was just missing locations, maybe pulling the ball a little bit,” Boone said of Cortes. “Just not quite as sharp as we’re accustomed to.”
Paredes slugged Schmidt’s first pitch for a two-run blast, pinning a fourth run onto Cortes’ ledger – a total that matched his season high from June 8 at Minnesota. Cortes said it was a challenge to face Tampa Bay for a third time in five starts (he also pitched against them on May 26 and June 15), believing the Rays were sitting on his cutter.
“I gave up a lot of hard contact, so I guess that was their game plan tonight,” Cortes said. “I didn’t execute to where I wanted to execute. That was the biggest reason why you saw what happened today. If I executed better, it would have been a different story. ”
The Yankees nearly took Cortes off the hook in the ninth, as Marwin Gonzalez hit a two-out, two-run homer to the left, bringing pinch-hitter Aaron Judge to the plate as the potential tying run.
Judge broke his bat as he launched a drive high and deep to left field, but it was caught on the warning track by Randy Arozarena as the Yanks absorbed just their third loss in their past 20 games.
“When we saw the ball flying, we were expecting it to go,” Gonzalez said. “He has crazy power. If anybody else hits the ball like that, it’s a blooper over shortstop. ”