CHICAGO — Striding on the outfield grass toward the Yankees' dugout, after completing his pregame bullpen session, Nestor Cortes knew he had his best stuff on Sunday afternoon.
Sometimes a pitcher will end up struggling between the lines after a pristine 'pen before first pitch.
That wasn't the case for New York's stupefying southpaw.
Cortes proceeded to paint his latest masterpiece on the mound at Guaranteed Rate Field, spinning eight innings of one-run ball with seven strikeouts and just three hits allowed as the Yankees defeated the White Sox 5-1.
Lowering his ERA to 1.35 on the season after this latest gem, Cortes now boasts the best ERA in the American Leagues. Only Miami's starter Pablo Lopez (1.04) has a lower ERA, entering play on Monday.
"I told him that was good, even for him," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said with a smirk after the win, New York's 18th in their last 21 games. "It was just another special outing. I mean, just in complete control, working quick, some really good defense behind him and just really sharp."
After giving up a single with two outs in the first inning, Cortes retired the next 15 batters he faced. In the fourth, the southpaw nearly threw his second immaculate inning of the season, striking out the side on just 10 pitches.
It wasn't until his eighth inning of work where Chicago was able to push across a run. After Adam Engel's solo homer with one out in the frame, however, Cortes finished his outing the way it began: with a harmless ground ball to third baseman Josh Donaldson.
Cortes, as usual, kept a rapid pace while toeing the rubber. When he wasn't striking hitters out, dotting his cutter and fastball on the corners, he was inducing relatively weak contact, balls often hit right at the defenders behind him.
"I feel like I can barely even get from the dugout to the field in time, he's ready to go," Donaldson said. "It almost reminded me of a former teammate of mine Mark Buehrle. Just getting it going, changing speeds, getting ground balls, action early and he forced them to start swinging the bat. And we were making some plays behind him, which was nice."
Left fielder Joey Gallo, who homered to give New York some insurance in the top of the ninth, added that Cortes has been "unbelievable" this season.
"It's so fun to play defense behind him too," Gallo explained. "He works fast, throws strikes. I'm really glad he's on our team and I don't have to face him. He's been lights out. So hopefully he keeps doing that. He's going to give us a good chance to win each time he takes the mound."
Asked about his tempo on the mound, Cortes said his dad used to hound him about walking around too much between pitches back in high school. From that point on, working quickly became second nature.
"My dad would be like, 'why are you walking so much forward, your legs are gonna give out if you're pitching six or seven innings.' I throw the ball, stay on the mound, get the ball back and go, it's something that I've done a bit for a while now," Cortes said.
Mix that speed between pitches with his ability to change the speed of each delivery, keeping hitters off balance, and it's been a dangerous combination.
"He's forcing you from pitch one to get in there, be ready to hit and he's got change of speed, he's got movement to both sides, he's got some deception with the heater that really gets on guys. And he really keeps the pressure on you as a hitter," Donaldson added.
Every time Cortes takes the ball, the narrative that last season's breakout performance was a fluke becomes more and more obsolete. Cortes has flirted with no-hitters this year, he's racked up double-digit strikeouts two times and even when he's not at his best, he's still given the Yankees a chance to win.
Again, his numbers are among the best in baseball. The No. 5 starter in New York's rotation has been pitching like an ace.
"It's fun to be in this clubhouse. It's fun to be around these guys," Cortes said. "I mean, going back to last year, it's been great. The start has been amazing and hopefully I can continue to do so."
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