JUPITER, Fla. — When Nestor Cortes arrived at spring training with a strained hamstring, it didn’t seem like a major threat to his availability for the start of the regular season.
The way the Yankees slow-played his return didn’t give Cortes much room for error, though, and using the off day after Opening Day to skip his first turn through the rotation was not out of the question.
But a week away from the start of the regular season, Cortes looked plenty crisp in his second and penultimate outing of spring training as he is now slotted to take his turn the first time through the rotation.
Facing a Cardinals lineup consisting almost entirely of regulars, Cortes threw four scoreless innings on Thursday, allowing just two singles and striking out seven in a 1-1 tie at Roger Dean Stadium.
“It was encouraging,” Cortes said. “I felt like the [velocity] was consistent throughout the whole outing and I was hitting my spots real well.”
While the results were strong, manager Aaron Boone thought Cortes looked just as good.
“Really, it’s been in line with what we’ve seen from him all spring, even when he was initially coming back from the hamstring,” Boone said. “As he was getting built up, he was real sharp. Today he was really sharp. Stuff was really good, popped a 94 [mph] even in there. But his command and his mix, he was in command today.
“It was crisp, it was sharp. He was throwing the ball where and how he wanted to.”
Boone said he was leaning toward having Cortes make his next start Tuesday in an exhibition against the Nationals in Washington, which would line him up to start the fourth game of the regular season, on April 3 against the Phillies. The Yankees have some wiggle room, though, as Domingo German also started in a minor league game on Thursday in Tampa, meaning either of them could get an extra day of rest before starting the fifth game of the regular season.
Before then, Cortes will be focused on further building up his pitch count and keeping his hamstring healthy. He threw 66 pitches on Thursday after throwing 52 in his Grapefruit League debut last Saturday.
“I feel good,” Cortes said. “I think now it’s just getting to pitch count and being strong through the third time around the lineup or the fifth and sixth inning. That’s going to be the next hurdle for the next outing.”
Cortes also got a slight test of his hamstring in the second inning. Lars Nootbaar hit a ground ball off first base, and while Cortes did eventually get over to cover first base, Anthony Rizzo took care of it himself. Cortes and Rizzo laughed as they headed back to the dugout.
“Just being conservative covering over there,” Cortes said. “It felt good though, which that’s encouraging. I feel like I can make a better effort, but obviously didn’t want to go all out and test that here. I felt like next time around, whenever there’s a ground ball that way, I can cover myself.”
Boone said the Yankees had told Cortes not to “bust it right now” while they are still in spring training. So there was no all-out effort to race to first and dive to tag the bag, as Cortes had done last April on a play that grew his legend in a game against the Guardians.
“Yeah, I would pass that up today,” Cortes said with a laugh. “March , I would pass it up. But come first week of April, I’m sure I’ll be able to do it.”
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