Leave it to Nestor Cortes Jr. to tame the Blue Jays and get the Yankees back on track.
The left-hander, who emerged as an unexpected but valuable piece of the rotation last year, picked up where he left off and mowed down a dangerous lineup across 4 ¹/₃ scoreless innings.
The Yankees’ bullpen took care of the rest, continuing its early-season dominance to snap a two-game skid with a 4-0 win over the Blue Jays on Tuesday night in The Bronx.
“[Cortes] was terrific,” manager Aaron Boone said. “Against that offense, it’s a load and he was in total control. … Overall, just a really strong start to the season for Nestor.”
In another fairly quiet game for the Yankees’ offense, Aaron Hicks delivered the big hit — a two-run homer in the second inning. But it was enough to fend off the Jays and even the series, thanks to the Yankees’ pitching staff.
The Blue Jays threatened in the eighth inning against Jonathan Loaisiga, with a pair of two-out singles. But Loaisiga got Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to ground out to escape the jam.
The Yankees then added an insurance run in the bottom of the inning on a sacrifice fly by Giancarlo Stanton before Aroldis Chapman locked down the win in the ninth.
Cortes, who had not pitched in a game in 10 days (his Grapefruit League finale came on April 2), showed no signs of rust. He retired 11 batters in a row after giving up a leadoff double, and limited the Blue Jays to just three hits and no walks while striking out five.
It looked like much of what Cortes provided the Yankees last season — when he was thrust into the rotation midseason because of injuries and COVID-19, and went on to post a 2.90 ERA. After the Yankees were in the market to add another starting pitcher in the offseason but did not, Cortes’ season debut gave hope that his strong 2021 was not just a flash in the pan.
“I think I’m more prepared,” said Cortes, who threw 72 pitches as he continued to build up his workload. “Last year, I put up an amount of good innings, and hopefully this year I can do that and start the whole season and give quality innings.”
Cortes’ fastball won’t light up the radar gun — it sat 90-93 mph Tuesday — but it plays up with his short arm action, according to his teammates and Boone, to complement his offspeed pitches.
“He proved it last year,” said DJ LeMahieu, who had a pair of hits. “It’s his time and he looks great out there.”
After tying for the league lead (22) in getting thrown out at home last year, the Yankees ran into their first out at the plate this season in the bottom of the first. With one out, Josh Donaldson went from first to third on a double that Anthony Rizzo rocketed off the right-field wall. But after seeing Teoscar Hernandez had trouble picking up the ball in right field, Donaldson broke for home, only to be thrown out.
But the Yankees cashed in an inning later off Blue Jays starter Yusei Kikuchi, courtesy of a two-run home run from Hicks to the short porch in right field. The 2-0 lead marked the first time this season the Yankees had scored first.
“It felt really good, especially to do it in my first at-bat, being the first ones to score,” Hicks said.
The Yankees tacked on another run in the bottom of the fourth inning, thanks to an error by Blue Jays catcher Tyler Heineman. LeMahieu was on second base and Gleyber Torres on first when Heineman tried to pick off Torres. But the throw sailed past Guerrero, allowing LeMahieu to score to go up 3-0.
The bullpen made sure the lead stood, now having given up just three earned runs over 27 ²/₃ innings to begin the season.
“They’re really good,” Boone said. “They all came in tonight and did what we expect of them.”