ST. PETERSBURG—Aaron Judge isn’t buying Nestor Cortes’ comments. After the left-hander went out and dealt another gem as the Yankees beat the Rays 7-2 at Tropicana Field on Thursday night, Cortes said he didn’t believe he was one of the best pitchers in the big leagues right now.
“I definitely disagree. But he can think whatever he wants. He’s gonna keep doing what he’s doing. He can think whatever he wants and just keep going out there and performing every five days,” the Yankees slugger said of Cortes. “It’s special. It’s fun to watch. Like I said on the field, he competes. He goes out there not afraid of anybody in the lineup and when you got it like that, it’s fun to play ball.”
And it’s fun for the Yankees (32-13) right now, who maintained the best record in baseball despite going through a rough patch with injuries. They increased their early-season lead in the American League East to 5.5 games over the Rays (26-18).
How nasty was Nestor Thursday night? He was tough to watch from the other dugout, too. Rays manager Kevin Cash agrees with Judge.
“Very, very tough,” Cash said. “He came in as one of the better pitchers in baseball so far and we certainly saw why. We faced him last year and he was good. Looks like he’s kind of elevated his game a little bit here as of late. A lot of deception. The fastball kind of jumps in on you, the cutter plays off that. So he threw a good ballgame, really good ball game.”
Cortes picked up just his fourth win of the season and was charged with one run on four hits over eight innings. He struck out five and walked one. He held the Rays scoreless through eight innings and came back out for the ninth when he gave a leadoff single to Wander Franco. Wandy Peralta let that run score and allowed another before shutting the game down.
It was the second time in his career Cortes got through eight innings, it was the second time in his last three starts he pitched eight and allowed one earned run or fewer. His 1.70 ERA through nine starts is the lowest among Yankees pitchers since Hideki Irabi in 1998. He has allowed three runs or less in 18 consecutive starts, two short of Russ Ford’s 20 game streak in 1910-11.
It’s impressive enough that Cortes is getting talked about as a shoo-in to represent the Yankees at the All-Star Game.
“I’ve still got a lot to prove,” Cortes said. “I think it’s still early. You know, this is a quarter way of the season and I want to prove that I can go 30 starts and 150-plus innings hopefully.
“So I just want to keep my head down and keep going.”
That also describes the Yankees Thursday night.
They took yet another hit to the roster with Aaron Hicks scratched less than half an hour before first pitch with tightness in his right hamstring. Matt Carpenter, signed after opting out of his minor league contract with the Rangers on May 19, was rushed in the lineup just three hours after he landed in Tampa.
With Hicks down and DJ LeMahieu still nursing a sore left wrist and unavailable, the Yankees played with only catcher Kyle Higashioka available on the bench.
Still, they managed to roll over their closest competition in the American League East, with Carpenter jumping in and playing a part.
The Yankees were no-hit through five innings by Ryan Yarbrough, who walked Anthony Rizzo in the first and then retired 14 straight before it unraveled in the sixth. Matt Carpenter, who had arrived in the Yankees clubhouse just hours before, was hit by a pitch, the first base runner since the first, and Marwin Gonzalez’s line drive to center field was the Bombers’ first hit of the night.
Aaron Judge grounded a single—98 miles an hour off the bat—up the middle to bring in the Yankees’ second run. The slugger, playing center field after Hicks was a late scratch, stole second. Miguel Andujar singled to drive in another and second run scored on the Rays’ throwing error on the play.
Isaiah Kiner-Falefa led off the seventh with a walk and scored on a Ralph Garza, Jr. wild pitch. Judge drove in the Yankees’ fifth run on a sacrifice fly with the bases loaded in the ninth. Anthony Rizzo followed a sharp line drive double that plated the team’s final two runs.
“We got a resilient team of guys,” Judge said. “You can scratch somebody five minutes before the game and guys are gonna be ready, you know? We got a team that’s all working together getting things done.”