Yankees’ Nestor Cortes clears final tune-up ahead of Opening Day start

NORTH PORT, Fla. — When Yankees pitchers and catchers officially reported to spring training on Feb. 14, Nestor Cortes had only just recently cleared a key mental hurdle in getting past his 2023 shoulder issues.

Even still, his early outings in camp usually came with some kind of disclaimer about having to make sure he still felt good physically the next day, since an insufficient recovery was the tell for his rotator cuff strains last season.

But Cortes kept bouncing back well, kept feeling strong and kept building up his workload, which came to its spring conclusion on Thursday when he had his final tuneup in a 75-pitch, four-plus-inning start against the Braves.

Nestor Cortes will be the Yankees’ Opening Day starter against the Astros in Houston. Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

The next time the Yankees left-hander takes the mound, it will be the real thing next Thursday on Opening Day in Houston.

“Every outing I’ve come into this spring has felt super normal for me,” Cortes said after a 5-2 loss at CoolToday Park. “It’s what it was before, pre-2023. Just keep building off that. Today was my first day going [into the fifth inning] in spring. Obviously next time, hopefully five or six [innings] again and keep building off that.”

Cortes was especially sharp through his first three innings against the Braves, who rolled out what is expected to be their Opening Day lineup — almost the same one that was the majors’ most dangerous offense last season.

The Braves got to Cortes for three runs (including a home run by Orlando Arcia) as he began to run out of steam and hit his pitch count with no outs in the fifth inning, but he appreciated the challenge of facing that kind of lineup in his spring finale.

“Coming in here, knowing I was going to face their A-lineup, it was kind of like a tuneup for Houston,” Cortes said. “I don’t think Houston’s any different from them as far as firepower. It was pretty good coming in here and facing those guys.”

The outing capped what Cortes and the Yankees believe was an encouraging spring for their former 36th-round pick.

Aaron Boone described Cortes’ work as “excellent,” and the Yankees needed it to be to get the best version of the 2022 All-Star, especially with Gerrit Cole set to miss at least the first two months of the season.

Nestor Cortes Charles Wenzelberg / New York Post

Back in December, a week or two into his throwing program, Cortes still felt like he needed to get over the hump with his shoulder, so he spent the majority of each week in Tampa rehabbing and working out at the Yankees’ player development complex.

By mid-to-late January, once Cortes had gotten a live batting practice session or two under his belt, he finally realized he could begin to let it rip.

“Coming in in December, I remember I was like, ‘Man, it’s gonna be hard to break 80 [mph],’ just because my confidence wasn’t there,” Cortes said. “Then once I broke 80, it’s like, ‘OK, now I gotta break 85.’ I broke 85. My [velocity] has been up the whole spring, so that’s a positive way to look at it. I’ve been 90-92 for the most part, touched [93-94] consistently. And bouncing back. So I feel like I’m in a good spot right now.”

That scouting report is in line with everything Boone has seen from Cortes this spring.

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“Everything’s gone really well,” Boone said. “That was evident when I got down here, getting to see him. His stuff looked like Nestor. That quickness, that life to the fastball. Feel like his cutter and secondary stuff’s been in a good place. I feel like overall he’s thrown the ball really well in spring. … The stuff for the most part has been there. I think it’s been a good few months for Nestor.”

Now comes another big jump, from pitching in Grapefruit League games to starting against the Astros on Opening Day and all the adrenaline that comes with it. But Cortes has his confidence back, and it appears his health, too.

“Given the circumstances, obviously you don’t want to take the ball with Gerrit Cole being out,” Cortes said. “But it’s a privilege to be selected to be the Opening Day starter. I know Booney and the organization have all the confidence in the world in me and I’m happy for that. I’m ready to take on that [role].”

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