Orioles Rule 5 draft pick Nestor Cortes Jr. is only two starts into what will likely be an extended audition for a roster spot and possibly a place in the April starting rotation.
But two starts has been enough for Cortes — the former New York Yankees farmhand who had to pitch himself out of low-minors purgatory in 2017 and ended up with a chance at the Orioles' Opening Day roster as a result — to expand the list of those he feels believe he can succeed to more than himself.
Now, it includes the Orioles.
"Honestly, I'm starting spring training games, so it means something," Cortes said after allowing a run on four hits with three strikeouts in two innings in a 5-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday at Charlotte Sports Park. "But as for right now, I'm just concentrating on getting people out and showing my best me.
"It's not a big deal for me, working on things and showing results. I think for me, it's just showing what I can do. Not a lot of people think I can do it, but I have confidence in me and I think the club has confidence in me. Moving forward, I think we'll be good."
Cortes, 23, categorized Thursday's start, his second of the spring for the Orioles (2-5-1), as a lot like the first. In his spring debut Saturday, he allowed a run on one hit in two innings and lamented one well-hit ball. On Thursday, he did the same, as he left a high fastball over the plate to Rays catcher Jesús Sucre and saw it jet out for a home run to left-center field with one out in the second inning.
"I think I spotted all my pitches," Cortes said. "Once again, just one pitch that hurt me. But other than that, I think it was a little similar to the other ones."
“I thought he was a little better this time out,” manager Buck Showalter said. “He can do a lot of things with the baseball. Some wind-blown balls. That [home run] ball was hit pretty good though. He's presenting himself as advertised. I thought it was a little better today. That was good to see. … He's got good command of the fastball to both sides, can spin the ball. He'll need all his weapons, but that's part of who he is.”
A two-out single by second baseman Daniel Robertson and a wind-and-sun-aided bloop double to right field by shortstop Willy Adames made for a tense end to his second inning, but Cortes punched out center fielder Denard Span for the second time on the afternoon to end his day.
Span accounted for two of Cortes’ three strikeouts, with the third coming against right fielder Ryan Schimpf swinging in the second. Cortes continued to baffle the Rays' left-handed hitters, though all four hits came to right-handed batters and a diving catch by left fielder Jaycob Brugman to open the second inning prevented a fifth to an opposite-side batter.
Given the Orioles' plan to build up free-agent signing Andrew Cashner on the back fields and to slow-play bringing along Chris Tillman, Cortes will likely continue to see opportunities to start as spring training progresses. The left-hander relishes the opportunity to show what he can do while getting ready for the season, whatever it might hold for him.
"I'm here to help the team," Cortes said. "I'm here to win games. Whether it's starting or relieving, whatever they want me to do, I'm here for it."
Showalter seemed heartened by the fact that Cortes has handled the opportunities in the manner he has, and suspects that won’t change for the undersized Rule 5 pick.
“He's got a lot of confidence, and he's not going to let an opportunity pass without letting it rip,” Showalter said. “He's not going to be unaggressive or not trust himself or give them too much credit. I don't think he's going to be intimidated by the level. He's probably been told a lot because of maybe the velocity and the height, all the stuff, that he can't do things. He just keeps doing it at every level he goes to. Now, he's going to get a chance to show us that he can do it here.”
Good day for the kids
The next wave of touted Orioles hitting prospects were on display in Port Charlotte on Thursday, and delivered plenty to make them worth paying attention to going forward. With two outs in the sixth inning and the score tied at 1, third baseman Ryan Mountcastle drilled an RBI double to center field for his fourth extra-base hit in six games. He’s batting .313 so far this spring.
An inning later, center fielder Cedric Mullins opened a three-run seventh inning rally with a double, his first hit of the spring. He went on to score on a bases-loaded walk drawn by fellow outfield prospect DJ Stewart.