Nestor Cortes hit hard by Blue Jays as Yankees lefty makes spring debut: ‘Not a nasty start’

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DUNEDIN, Fla. — The Blue Jays refused to take it easy on Nestor Cortes in his spring debut on Saturday.

The Yankees southpaw, sidelined up to this point by a hamstring injury, faced an Opening Day-esque Toronto lineup in his return to the mound. That combination resulted in Cortes allowing five earned runs, including homers to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Whit Merrifield, over 3.1 innings of work. Cortes also walked three and struck out four.

“Not a nasty start,” Cortes said after the game, a nod to his nickname. But considering the hamstring injury and the groin issue that led to a premature playoff exit last October, Cortes was happy with his command and thought his stuff was better than he expected in his first game action of 2023.

His manager agreed.

“I thought he was all right. I liked the life on his fastball,” Aaron Boone said. “Got some swing and miss with it. Made a couple mistakes probably cutter-, slider-wise.”

Boone would have preferred that Cortes not face a talented Jays order right out of the gate, but the skipper acknowledged a need to get the starter out there with spring training a few weeks from ending.

“It doesn’t matter,” Cortes added when asked about Toronto’s lineup. “At this point, with my first outing, as long as I get out of there healthy and feeling good about myself, [that’s] the most important thing for me.”

Cortes threw 52 total pitches, three shy of his target, so he tossed a few more in the bullpen after exiting. The plan is for him to make two more spring training starts. Cortes will aim for 60-65 pitches in his next outing and then 75-80 in his last exhibition start. His goal is to be in the 85-90 range when he makes his first start of the regular season.

Boone said that, with the way the Yankees have mapped things out, Cortes could end up starting the fourth game of the season. Initially, the thought was that Cortes’ hamstring injury would force him into the fifth rotation slot to begin the season.

On Saturday, Cortes limited his trademark chicanery, which has endeared him to fans and infuriated hitters over the last few years. That had nothing to do with Major League Baseball’s new rules, such as the pitch clock, however. The 2022 Cy Young vote-getter confirmed that he can still do the “weird stuff” he likes to do — such as hesitation moves and funky windups — and he plans on dipping into his bag of tricks next time out.

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Cortes said of the pitch clock. “As soon as I start my windup, the clock should stop, and I should be able to do what I want to do.”