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Yankees must rely on pitching to spark season rebound

The 2021 Yankees have malfunctioned in so many creative ways, misfired in so many unexpected directions, that you can lose track of who’s doing what when and how.

So as they prepare to welcome their big trade-deadline buy Joey Gallo to The Bronx, closing in on an agreement with the Rangers to upgrade their offense, it’s worth noting just how strong their starting pitching has been of late.

It is the unit most necessary for a late playoff run. It is the unit looking the most fit on this Yankees team.

In defeating the Rays, 3-1 in 10 innings, at Tropicana Field on Wednesday night, their second straight victory over their rivals, the Yankees enjoyed a terrific five innings of one-run, three-hit, no-walk, five-strikeout ball from fifth starter Nestor Cortes Jr. In their last 18 games, Yankees starters own a 2.03 ERA and have allowed two earned runs or fewer in 15 of those starts as they have mounted a 12-6 record in that stretch. At 53-47, they stand 2 ¹/₂ games behind the A’s (57-46) for the American League’s second wild card.

You can’t suffer a flurry of gut-wrenching bullpen meltdowns, after all — as has been the case in three of those six losses — unless your starting pitchers are keeping you in the contest most of the time.

“That’s a great place to start, starting pitching,” Aaron Boone said late Wednesday. “If our starters are giving us a chance night in and night out, that’s ultimately what’s going to give us a chance to fuel a really good finish to this season.”

Nestor Cortez
Nestor Cortez delivered five strong innings on Wednesday.
Getty Images

Cortes, signed to a minor league contract in January, pitched rather forgettably for the Yankees in 2019, compiling a 5.57 ERA in 33 games totaling 66 ²/₃ innings; he tallied a 15.26 ERA in five games for the Mariners last year. Since his last Yankees stay, the left-hander has added velocity to his fastball and slider, and the result is a remarkable 1.93 ERA, easing the Yankees’ pain of Corey Kluber and Mike King’s long-term trips to the injured list and Luis Severino’s delayed return.

“He’s got good characteristics on his ball, so his fastball plays,” Boone said. “He’s got the ability to pitch up with [the fastball]. He does create deception, obviously, with his delivery some, just his arm action, the ability to throw from different arm angles and the ability to change speeds. … He’s good at his craft.”

In addition to his increased velocity, Cortes said of his fastball, “I have good command for it. I can throw it in any quadrant in the zone.”

His fellow rotation mates are trending up. Ace Gerrit Cole, who will start Thursday afternoon as the Yankees attempt to complete the sweep (a task at which they have struggled), has shaken off early concerns that his greatness was fully a product of Spider Tack. Fellow former Pirates teammate Jameson Taillon, whose first couple of months as a Yankee couldn’t have gone much worse, owns a 1.42 ERA in four July starts. Domingo German appears to have worked through some recent travails of his own, as evidenced by his no-hitter attempt against the Red Sox at Fenway Park on Sunday, and Jordan Montgomery, this staff’s Jacob deGrom (because of his poor run support), consistently keeps his team in ballgames.

Throw in the hope that Kluber and Severino can make their way back, and the Yankees just might have the horses on the mound to pull off an unlikely run to the playoffs, thereby putting pressure on the bats to match them.

The Yankees’ impending trade for Gallo confirms they’re going for it, and their attention on their offense reflects how they feel about their arms.

“I knew how badly we needed this win [this game] and this series,” Cortes said.

They badly need to keep this going, and there are far worse areas to feel good about than your starting pitching.

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