ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Yankees stepped into Tropicana Field to face their toughest competition in the battered and bruised AL East — and Thursday night, it didn’t matter.
As he has done all season, Nestor Cortes pitched like an ace, giving a makeshift Yankees formation that was untouched by Ryan Yarbrough before the sixth inning enough time to break into the a 7-2 win over the Rays.
It was the first of 19 games between the teams this season, with 10 of those meetings coming in the Yankees’ next 25 games.
The win extended the Yankees lead in the AL East over Tampa Bay to 5½ games.
Cortes had a shutout in the ninth and threw a career-high 109 shots.
After two of the first three batters of the night found themselves on base, Cortes gave up 14 straight before Isiah Kiner-Falefa erred to lead in the bottom of the sixth.
By then, the Yankees had built a three-pointer, all top of the inning.
“Just scratching that first inning was huge, especially with Nestor on the mound and how he’s been,” Aaron Judge said. “You get a run and they ride like that guy, we’re in a good position.”
Cortes lowered his ERA to 1.70 but said he still doesn’t consider himself one of the best pitchers in the game.
“Not really,” Cortes said. “I still have a lot to prove, I think. It’s still early, a quarter [into] the season. I want to prove that I can do 30 starts and hopefully over 150 innings. Just keep your head down and carry on.
Briefed on Cortes’ comments, the judge said: ‘I absolutely disagree. [But] he can think what he wants if he keeps doing what he’s doing.
Yarbrough, meanwhile, entered with a 2.41 ERA in 37 ¹/₃ innings against the Yankees and struck out 15 of the first 16 batters he saw, with only Anthony Rizzo walking in the first.
Rolling out a roster without Giancarlo Stanton (ankle), DJ LeMahieu (left wrist), Josh Donaldson (COVID IL) and Aaron Hicks (hamstring), the Yankees won their third straight game after suffering their first three-game losing streak of the season.
“We have a resilient squad,” Judge said.
Matt Carpenter, who was just released by Rangers and signed by the Yankees earlier Thursday, started the sixth by getting hit by a pitch, and light hitter Marwin Gonzalez followed with the Yankees’ first hit of the night. , a single in the middle to make the top of the command appear.
Judge then picked the middle to tag Carpenter from second and give the Yankees a 1-0 lead.
Rizzo flew to the right for the first out, with Gonzalez dropping to third.
With Ryan Thompson to face Gleyber Torres, Judge stole second place.
Torres came out before Andujar hit a grounder at shortstop. Taylor Walls stumbled then rebounded his pitch at first, where Harold Ramirez didn’t put a glove on the ball and he fumbled, allowing a second run to score on the play, giving the Yankees a 3 lead -0.
The Yankees scored on wild pitch in the seventh to make it 4-0 before Cortes finally gave up another hit with two outs late in the inning as Manuel Margot’s shot to right center escaped Judge.
The southpaw forced Isaac Paredes out to get out of the inning.
The Yankees tacked on three more runs in the ninth thanks to a sacrifice fly from the judge and a brace from Rizzo.
It was a promising start to an important streak for the Yankees, who built much of their early success against teams under .500, including going 9-4 against the last-place Orioles.
“Being a part of this has been a lot of fun,” said Carpenter, who landed in Tampa three hours before the game started and was only in the lineup because Hicks was taken out. “I was thrown straight into the fire and tried to put some good bats together.”