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Nestor Cortes Shining in Expanded Role By Being 'Different'

CHICAGO — Needing one more pitch to get through six innings on Sunday afternoon, Nestor Cortes Jr. did what he does best. 

The left-hander kicked into his windup, but instead of a traditional offering, he dipped toward the first-base line, delivering a perfectly placed heater—at 91.7 mph—to freeze White Sox phenom Luis Robert. 

Painting the outside corner, Cortes had already begun to strut toward the visitor's dugout at Guaranteed Rate Field. Sure, the funky southpaw gave up a solo home run earlier in that sixth frame, but he also struck out the side in the inning, closing out what ended up being his first MLB win as a starting pitcher.

With one earned run allowed in Sunday's 5-3 victory over the White Sox, Cortes lowered his ERA on the season to 2.55, making his 14th appearance of the year (and sixth start since the beginning of July). 

Injuries and COVID-19 outbreaks have opened the door for Cortes' increased workload, a pitcher that's been a regular on the Scranton shuttle during past stints within the Yankees' organization. Every time it seems like the lefty will regress to the mean—pitching to the form of a 6.72 ERA entering the 2021 regular season—he puts together another impressive performance, sprinkling in his patented flare on the mound.

"He's in the middle of a really strong year, he's a big reason why we're turning this thing around," manager Aaron Boone said Sunday. "Whatever role he's in moving forward and on through the end of the season, the bottom line is he's pitching really well and we like when he has the ball in his hand."

Watching Cortes pitch is a constant source of entertainment and surprises. On Sunday, he didn't shy away from his sidearm stunner, but early this season he's mixed in a quick pitch here and there, even the rare double leg kick.

Some windups are more unconventional than others—one time he took so long, the home plate umpire waved off the impending pitch, sparking a huge smile from American League Most Valuable Player candidate Shohei Ohtani as he waited patiently in the batter's box. 

As much as Cortes' antics can seem silly at times, the fact of the matter is they're working.

Cortes is in the league's 93rd percentile in Barrel % (3.8). He might not throw hard or miss many bats, but by messing with timing, he's been very hard to handle. 

"You just don't see guys like that anymore," Yankees first baseman Luke Voit explained, referencing a stable of arms that throw 100 from Chicago's pitching staff. "He's shimmying and he's trying to screw with your timing. It's honestly one of those days where you go 0-for-3 and you look back and you're like, 'how did I not get hit off him?' 

"He's had an up and down career, but he's figured it out. He's disgusting."

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Breaking down his unorthodox routine on the bump, Cortes said he always chats with his catcher prior to a start, planning out when he might mix in an elongated delivery or drop down like a submariner. While he'll typically resort to it in a two-strike situation—as he did to end the fifth and sixth innings on Sunday—the key is staying unpredictable, so it truly can happen at any time. 

"I've been doing it for a couple years already, I want to say five or six years," Cortes said. "It's based off of feel and it's worked for me so far. So hopefully, I can continue to do that."

New York will get both Gerrit Cole and Jordan Montgomery off the COVID-19 injured list early this week. Corey Kluber, Luis Severino, Clarke Schmidt and others could follow off the IL before the end of the regular season. Even if Cortes didn't project to hold an important role in this pitching staff, a likely casualty when those big names are due to return, Boone and this club's coaching staff have no reason to send the left-hander down. 

Cortes has had some clunkers along the way, as all pitchers do, but Sunday was another example of how he can dominate even the most dangerous—and righty-heavy—lineups. After all, this is a hurler that posted an 0.82 ERA over eight appearances stretching from the beginning of June into early July. 

"He's unbelievable," Voit added. "I mean, the way he can change speeds with all of his pitches and attack the zone at any point up, in, down and just keep hitters off balance all day is pretty impressive."

The kid from Hialeah has blossomed in 2021, taking the ball whenever his number is called—regardless of the role or the situation—and constantly baffling big-league hitters. 

Asked if he would wave a magic wand and switch into a hard-throwing pitcher like the majority of the arms at this level, Cortes smiled, curling his lips at the edges of his mustache. 

"I would love to throw 97 or 98," Cortes said. "But as long as I can get the job done, and keep getting outs, which is the most important thing, I'll stick to what I got."

What he's got is the second-best ERA among New York's pitchers that have made 10-plus appearances this season and a career year that's put the 26-year-old in a position to earn a spot in the Yankees' rotation going forward. 

He may be "different," as both Boone and Voit called him, but based on those results, he'd be silly to change.

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