Nestor Cortes in mid-season form for RailRiders

MOOSIC, Pa. – What offseason?

Between pitching for the Estrellas de Oriente in the Dominican Winter League and the Caribbean Series and an early invite to New York Yankees camp, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders starting pitcher Nestor Cortes had about one month off total this winter.

But by keeping busy, Cortes enters his 2019 campaign in mid-season form. And it’s shown in the early goings.

Cortes sports a 1-0 record and 2.55 ERA after three starts.

Nestor Cortes went from the 2018 season to the winter leagues directly to spring training with no offseason. (Robert M. Pimpsner)

“I think I had a pretty good spring, overall, but then again, I was in mid-season form. So I just kicked into it,” Cortes said on Saturday when he was sporting an 0.71 ERA after his first two starts. “These first two starts have been great so far. The team – I think that we – I got the no-decision (on April 10), but I gave my team a chance to win, which is what I want every time I pitch. Hopefully, I can keep the roll going.”

Cortes’ “offseason” breaks down like this:

Cortes and the RailRiders lost to the Durham Bulls in Game 5 of the Governors’ Cup Finals on Sept. 15, 2018. The southpaw went home to Miami and took three to four days completely off and then started “tossing a little bit” so he could remain in rhythm. He went to the Dominican Republic on Oct. 5 to join the Estrellas.

Cortes threw a bullpen and simulated game and then threw in his team’s first game. He made eight or nine starts with the Estrellas before calling it a wrap at the midway point of the season, which was around Thanksgiving. It was only after Thanksgiving that Cortes finally took extended time off from throwing, which totaled about a month.

Nestor Cortes working out at PNC Field at media day 2019 (Matt Bufano)

But before Cortes departed the Estrellas, he told the team he would return only if they clinched the playoffs. And they did.

Cortes returned to the team on Dec. 20 and pitched on Dec. 22 to make one final start in the regular season and before he joined his family for a vacation in Washington D.C. He returned home from his vacation on Dec. 31 and was back on a flight to the Dominican Republic on Jan. 2. One day later Cortes would make another start for the Estrellas.

Cortes continued to pitch with the Estrellas all the way up to the championship game on Jan 25. But on the Jan. 23 Cortes got a phone call from Yankees pitching coordinator Scott Aldred. He received an early invite to camp, which had a report date of Jan. 28.

So Cortes used the weekend to return to Miami, take a few days off, wash his clothes and drive to Tampa for the following Monday. But when Cortes got to Tampa, he learned that the Estrellas had been invited to play in the Caribbean Series.

This was an opportunity Cortes didn’t want to miss. He knew he would be going “way over” his pitch limits for the winter, but he didn’t want to miss out on the experience. So Cortes pleaded his case to the Yankees and the organization obliged.

Nestor Cortes spent his winter pitching in the Dominican Republic. (Cheryl Pursell)

“I really wanted to go because it was a nice experience,” Cortes said. “All the players told me that I should go and that it was fun.”

Cortes spent from Jan. 28 to Feb. 1 in Tampa, which allowed him to throw a pair of bullpen sessions, before flying out to the Dominican Republic to meet up with his team before heading to Panama for the Caribbean Series.

The plan for Cortes was to pitch in the first game and then again in the championship game. He won his start but the Estrellas never made it to the championship game, missing out on a tiebreaker, so Cortes flew back to Miami the day of the championship game, which was a Saturday, and returned to Tampa for spring training the following Monday.

“At first, I went to the D.R. just to keep working on my craft and see if there was an opportunity for the Rule 5 Draft or get protected by the Yankees. It was either or,” Cortes said. “Neither of them happened. So I was like, ‘You know what? I’m just going to keep pitching. I want to experience this. I want to win.’ Luckily we won, so it turned out to be a really good decision.”

Cortes understands that the heavy workload from the winter and the fact he didn’t take much time off could make things difficult later on in the season.

He knows it’s going to be “really hard” to stay healthy all year long, but Cortes is prepared for the long road ahead. He’s not going to overdo his workouts and if he’s going to need a break from a bullpen one week, he’ll let RailRiders pitching coach Tommy Phelps know.

The most important thing is everyone is on the same page.

“I’m trying to be healthy all year. It’s going to be a task,” Cortes said. “I’m trying to take care of my body as much as I can.”

Three games in, Cortes has impressed.

The southpaw struck out nine batters in 5.2 innings of three-hit baseball in his first game of the season, a win against Buffalo on April 5. Cortes followed it up with another strong outing five days later, giving up just one run on three hits and a pair of walks over seven innings against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs.

And while his third start was the roughest – giving up four runs over five innings against the IronPigs on Monday – it was Cortes’ most impressive start of the season, according to RailRiders manager Jay Bell.

“I was extremely pleased with his performance last night,” Bell said on Tuesday. “You’re not going to be perfect every day. There are going to be times when things go wrong. But man, I’ll tell you what, it was pretty cool to watch that outing the other night. Even though it wasn’t his best, he still figured out how to grind through it. For me, that was a baseball outing. That was a baseball player trying to figure out how to get the job done. Even though he didn’t have his best stuff and best command, he figured out a way to get the job done.”

Cortes used all of that extra work over the winter to improve his game, all with hopes of getting the chance to pitch in the bigs this year.

He’s mostly focused on his slider, a pitch he heavily worked on last year. But after struggling to improve the pitch, Cortes changed his grip and started throwing it harder. The pitched progressively changed from a slider into a cutter.

“I started having success with back-door cutters/sliders,” Cortes said. “In the D.R. I went to work on my craft and I think my changeup has gotten a little better and now it’s an actual cutter, not a slider-cutter. I’m able to throw it in now on the hitters to where I can get it in right on the plate, and it’s worked so far because I can work it off my fastball.

“I think having me being able to be in midseason form when they need a midseason guy, maybe I can be the option.”

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