‘Nasty Nestor’ saves best for last with 12 K’s

Crafty lefty finishes 2022 regular season with 12-4 record and 2.44 ERA as starter

NEW YORK — Nestor Cortes lifted his right leg, rocked forward, hesitated, pointed his foot toward center field, then dotted a 94 mph fastball over the heart of home plate. Ryan Mountcastle couldn’t solve the puzzle, nor could the rest of the Orioles, stymied by another masterful “Nasty Nestor” performance.

On the 61st anniversary of Roger Maris’ 61st home run, the afternoon had a perfect historical setup for an Aaron Judge celebration. But with Judge kept in the ballpark Saturday, Cortes stole the show, limiting Baltimore to one hit over 7 1/3 magnificent innings in an 8-0 Yankees victory at Yankee Stadium.

“I just wanted to give a strong showing to finish the regular season on a high note,” Cortes said. “There’s still more work to be done, but I’m happy it ended this way.”

Leaning upon his slider, fastball, cutter and creativity, Cortes struck out 12, matching his career high. The O’s only hit off Cortes landed in the fifth inning, when Jorge Mateo lined a clean single into left-center field. Otherwise, a steady stream of Baltimore batters made hard turns back to the visiting dugout.

“He’s continued to get better, nonstop, always looking for some way to improve,” said Giancarlo Stanton, who hit his 29th homer in the win. “He’s fun in here; he keeps it light. Always laughing, always having a good time, and then he goes out and shoves every fifth day.”

It marked the final start of the regular season for Cortes, who finished the 2022 campaign with a 12-4 record and 2.44 ERA in 28 starts. Cortes’ ERA is the third lowest by a Yankees starter in the divisional era (since 1969), behind only Ron Guidry’s 1.78 ERA in 1978 and Steve Kline’s 2.40 ERA in ‘72.

“He’s been huge,” said Yankees manager Aaron Boone. “Understandably, the fan base loves him. He loves wearing the pinstripes and playing here, pitching here and performing here. It was a pretty neat ovation that he received when he came off [the mound]to finish off what’s been a great regular season for him.”

Added Orioles manager Brandon Hyde: “We had nothing going with Cortes. Give him credit. He is pitching outstanding right now.”

Not bad, considering Cortes called Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake before reporting to Spring Training and asked if he was “on the outside looking in” for a spot on the Opening Day roster. A first-time All-Star this season, Cortes will be an important part of the Yankees’ playoff rotation.

“I’ve got a chip on my shoulder every time I go out there; a sense of urgency,” Cortes said. “The season I had doesn’t matter. Every time I go out there and pitch, I always feel like it could be the last one. That’s how I go about it.”

Gerrit Cole is the likely choice to start Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Oct. 11, but there’s a case to be made that Cortes has been just as — if not more — deserving. Cortes’ 2.44 ERA ranks fifth in the AL, standing tall behind Justin Verlander (1.80), Dylan Cease (2.06), Alek Manoah (2.24) and Shohei Ohtani (2.35).

“We’ll see when that comes,” Boone said. “We’re still trying to get through the regular season and have to prepare for what opponent [we’ll play]. Hopefully we’re going into different rounds. It doesn’t always line up, so we’ll have those conversations.”

As for Judge, the Orioles handled him carefully, hoping to avoid becoming witnesses to history.

Earlier this week in Toronto, Roger Maris Jr. predicted that Saturday would see Judge clip No. 62, marking the anniversary of his father’s record-setting long ball. On Oct. 1, 1961, Maris homered to the right-field seats at the original Yankee Stadium, eclipsing Babe Ruth (60) to establish a new single-season home run record.

That mark still stands as the AL (and Yankees) record; Judge wasn’t able to deliver on Maris Jr.’s promise. Judge was hit by a pitch, walked and struck out in three plate appearances against O’s starter Austin Voth. Judge then walked and struck out against reliever Spenser Watkins late in the game.

“He’s the same guy every single day, no matter if he hits it or not,” Cortes said. “He’s helped us navigate through the ups and downs of this season. He’s ready for it. I think he’s going to do it, and hopefully he does it soon.”