How the legend of ‘Nasty Nestor’ was born

On path from struggles to stardom, Yanks’ resilient southpaw gets Game 2 start

NEW YORK — It was a Tuesday morning in July as Nestor Cortes stood near the front of an auditorium at the New York City Police Department Academy in Queens, having signed up for one leg of the Yankees’ annual HOPE Week community outreach program. A nice start to the season was developing into something more, and the unassuming lefty was only beginning to understand his surging celebrity.

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As other members of the pitching staff looked on with bemusement, Cortes was enveloped by a crush of attention, cadets and civilians alike flooding the space in hopes of securing an autograph, selfie or just a congratulatory handshake. When Cortes scaled the auditorium steps, invited by officers for a private tour of the facility, dozens of newfound “Nasty Nestor” fans followed their Pied Piper.

“It makes me feel great,” Cortes said later. “I think people have seen the struggles that I’ve gone through to get where I am today. I think they know my story.”

Do we? It is an inspiring one, worthy of our attention as the 27-year-old Cortes prepares for his assigned start in Game 2 of the American League Division Series, scheduled for Thursday against the Guardians at Yankee Stadium.

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On a roster populated by some of the game’s largest superstars, blessed with immense talent and eight-figure salaries, Cortes is the blue-collared 36th-round pick from Hialeah, Fla., who made good on his million-to-one shot. Discarded by three organizations and having faced a make-or-break moment in his professional career, the 5-foot-11 Cortes now stands tall on the postseason stage.

“I go out there every fifth day like it’s the last time I’m going to pitch,” Cortes said. “I think that’s how I’ve handled my whole career, even the Minor Leagues. For me to be able to go out there, enjoy the moment and just be part of it, I think that’s what keeps me level-headed — with that sense of urgency to do well every time.”

Cortes’ funky delivery angles and baffling pauses make him a delightful throwback, a crafty lefty in an era when velocity and spin rate occupy most of the oxygen. His trademark mustache doesn’t hurt, but Cortes is more than a gimmick; as he said earlier this year after diving into first base to record a putout against Cleveland’s Steven Kwan, “Under this body, there’s a guy that’s athletic.”

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“He looks like you and I,” manager Aaron Boone said. “You feel like you could relate to him. You feel like you could probably do what he does. You can’t.”

Yes, he can pitch; boy, can he. Cortes’ fastball generally sits 92 mph, hardly the triple-digit heat that Gerrit Cole or Luis Severino routinely pump past batters, but it has deception. He expertly ducks, dips, dives and dodges contact by mixing an immensely effective cutter with a sweeping slider and changeup combo. Cortes wrapped his All-Star campaign with a 12-4 record and 2.44 ERA in 28 starts; he’s most proud of his career-high 158 1/3 innings.

“I was just able to keep that tunnel vision toward the end and finish strong,” Cortes said.

To properly tell Cortes’ story, we need to go back — way back, before the abbreviated and largely unsuccessful big league stints with the Orioles (2018), Yankees (2019) and Mariners (2020). Born in Cuba, Cortes’ family moved to Miami when he was 7 months old; his father worked as a forklift driver for a sheetrock company and his mother was a manicurist.

They’d hoped for their son to attend college, but Cortes couldn’t risk the heartbreak of suffering an injury in college, having been so close to his dream of playing professionally.

At the urging of scout Carlos Marti, the Yankees used their 36th-round pick of the 2013 MLB Draft on Cortes, dangling a relatively paltry $85,000 bonus. Cortes took the money, beginning his string of long bus rides and greasy meals from paper bags. Cortes experimented with different windups in high school; he revisited the tactic in Double-A, hoping it could set him apart from the crowd.

“That’s always the first thing people talk about with Nestor, but I think that takes away from how good of a pitcher he is,” Boone said.

Though he initially wondered if coaches would tell him to knock it off, Cortes did it his way, gaining approval as frustrated hitters made hard right turns back to the bench while grumbling about their 0-for-4’s. Cortes recalls being told that he’d never be more than a No. 5 starter or long reliever, and there were times that he would have been OK with that.

On their way to a 115-loss season, the dismal 2018 Orioles took a flyer on Cortes in the Rule 5 Draft. Manager Buck Showalter’s Baltimore club saw Cortes for 4 2/3 innings, then designated him and his 7.71 ERA for assignment. A dejected Cortes felt as though he had a black mark on his career record; the worst team in baseball had no place for him.

He landed back with the Yankees, filling a long-relief and spot-starter role in 2019. When the Mariners showed trade interest that winter, the Yanks jumped, shipping Cortes to Seattle for cash considerations. He made just five appearances for the Mariners before reaching free agency, with a 6.72 career ERA to his name. Cortes shrugged and returned to the Yankees on a Minor League contract; he sometimes wondered if his big league dream was over.

“Every time I was out there, giving up those runs, it was a lonely feeling on the mound,” Cortes said.

Yet Cortes impressed enough that spring to be remembered when the Yanks needed help. Pitching to a 2.90 ERA in 22 games (14 starts) in 2021, he was penciled in as one of the club’s starters to open the ’22 season, even if Cortes didn’t necessarily believe it.

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As pitchers and catchers prepared, Cortes asked pitching coach Matt Blake, “Am I on the outside looking in?” Blake laughed, then realized Cortes was serious. Yes, Blake assured Cortes, he would be on the team. Cortes still kept his guard up through the spring, believing that any rocky outing could sink his chances of going north.

“As soon as I tasted what it was to be a starting pitcher in the big leagues, it made me work twice as hard, because I wouldn’t want to give it up,” Cortes said.

That hunger has served him well. The Yanks hope it never changes.