The rain delay kept going on and with it the false hope that Game 5 on Monday night would start at 8 pm or 8:30 or 9. Nestor Cortes stayed loose. He was going to back up Jameson Taillon out of the pen. That was the plan.
But as a rainout became obvious, Aaron Boone convened his coaches to modify strategy for what would now be a decisive late-afternoon tilt Tuesday. Cortes was summoned and informed by his manager that he could start on short rest now. “Give me five minutes,” Boone told his lefty about him. Cortes headed to the workout room. His manager met him there and “told me what I needed to hear.”
Every pitcher will say they want those words – that they are getting the ball in a big moment. Many will truly believe it. Fewer still have the talent / temperament marriage to thrive. When asked what made him confident that Cortes could handle a do-or-die game on short rest, Boone noted: “The Legend of Nestor” – the hardscrabble 36th-round pick who seemed destined for a bunch of designated for assignments and wound up an All-Star and big-game option.
Boone said he would have been thrilled with 10 outs from Cortes. Jonathan Loaisiga warmed up in the third. Lou Trivino in the fourth and fifth. But Cortes was economical and excellent. He went five innings in a 5-1 victory over Cleveland that advanced the Yankees to the ALCS.
The Yankees never did figure out in this Division Series how to catch a pop-up in the Bermuda Triangle of left fielder, shortstop and third baseman near the left-field line. Another missed one contributed to the only run against Cortes and a 21-pitch inning, or else he might have gone even further. Still he stared down bases loaded, one out against the three and four hitters to limit it to just the run.
“It’s critical at this time of year that – obviously you’ve got to have that competitive drive, but you’ve got to have fun playing the game, too, and he combines those two things really well,” Boone said.
The Yankees’ best big-game pitcher of the last 30 years, Orlando Hernandez, also parlayed those traits. He had moxie and showmanship. He did not flinch in October. He rose to it with flair and fortitude, a cascade of heart, varied arm angles and high leg kicks. Give him the ball and you could routinely expect October brilliance and a near guarantee that even on his worst day he just wouldn’t let a postseason start get away from him.
And can you say anything more complimentary about Cortes than he just might be the left-handed heir to Hernandez. The son of a duke is a marquess. And it is possible that the Yankees have El Marqués – the kind of El Duque-like presence you want taking the ball on short rest in a do-or-die game.
Brian Cashman, the GM who signed Hernandez to the Yankees in 1998, said, “He’s a creator. He’s an artist and Nestor is clearly an artist. You even saw the crowd reacting to one of his windups di lui in such an exciting way, like they would with El Duque. He likes to entertain. They were both entertainers and they are both tough as nails. So in all those categories, they are very similar. “
And this is not a meaningless comparison to the Cuban-born, Miami-raised Cortes.
“He’s a legend in baseball history and Yankee history, but also Cuban history,” Cortes said when I mentioned how much he reminded me of Hernandez after his formal postgame press conference. Born in 1994, Cortes’ memories of El Duque are from seeing him pitch with the 2005 champion White Sox. But he knows the three-time champion Yankee meaning of a comparison with Hernandez, who was 9-3 with a 2.65 ERA in 17 Yankees playoff games.
“You knew the moment would never be too big for Duque and it seems that Cortes has the same quality,” Cashman said. “He wasn’t even supposed to pitch Game 5. That was Jameson. And he got himself together and boom, here he goes. So I just don’t think the moments are going to ever be too big for him, just like Duque. “
The Yankees actually won with a bit of a hat tip to their dynastic past. In those days, if the Yankees encountered a down-the-rotation righty starter this time of year, they often put a kill shot on early. And in the part of Rocky Coppinger, Gil Heredia and Chad Ogea stepped Aaron Civale and his 4.92 ERA. He lasted one out and three runs – produced via a homer by Giancarlo Stanton.
In those days, a Yankees starter like El Duque would make it stand up. El Marqués did so this time.
In the Wild-Card Era (since 1995), there had been 132 postseason starts on fewer than four days’ rest. The group ERA was 4.59 and the teams were 54-78. Guardians manager Terry Francona did not risk it with his ace about him, Shane Bieber. But on three days’ rest after facing Bieber in Game 2 (two runs, five innings), Cortes was told “give us whatever you’ve got.”
What he gave was Hernandez-esque. He was El Marqués in pushing the Yankees to another ALCS date against the Astros.