ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Yankees entered Tropicana Field to take on their toughest AL East competition with punches and bruises — and on Thursday night it didn’t matter.
As he had all season, Nestor Cortes played like an ace, giving a makeshift Yankees lineup that Ryan Yarbrough failed to hit until the sixth inning enough time to break through in a 7-2 win over the Rays.
It was the first of 19 games between the teams that season, with 10 of those encounters coming in the Yankees’ next 25 games.
The win extended the Yankees’ lead in the AL East over Tampa Bay to 5 1/2 games.
Cortes took a shutout in the ninth and threw a career-high 109 pitches.
After two of the night’s first three batsmen arrived on base, Cortes’ 14th went straight out before Isiah Kiner-Falefa made a mistake to lead the end of the sixth.
By then the Yankees had built a three-run, all up the inning.
“Just scratching that first run was great, especially with Nestor on the mound and how he’s progressed,” said Aaron Judge. “You get a run and they roll like that guy, we’re in a good place.”
Cortes dropped his ERA to 1.70 but said he still doesn’t consider himself one of the best shooters in the game.
“Not really,” said Cortes. “I think I still have a lot to prove. It’s still early, a quarter [into] the season. I want to prove that I can hopefully get 30 starts and 150+ innings. Just keep your head down and keep going.”
Asked about Cortes’ comments, the judge said, “I definitely disagree. [But] He can think what he wants if he keeps doing what he is doing.”
Yarbrough, meanwhile, came up against the Yankees with a 2.41 ERA in 37 ¹/₃ innings and knocked out 15 of the first 16 batsmen he saw, with only Anthony Rizzo reaching with a one-out walk in the first.
With a lineup excluding 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 losing streak in three games of the season .
“We have a resilient team,” said Judge.
Matt Carpenter, who was just released by the Rangers and signed by the Yankees early Thursday, led in sixth by being hit by a throw, and the light-hitting Marwin Gonzalez followed with the Yankees’ first hit of the night, bringing a single in the middle to the top of the order.
The judge then hit down the middle to hit Carpenter from second place and give the Yankees a 1-0 lead.
Rizzo flew to the right for the first time, Gonzalez moved up to third.
With Ryan Thompson versus Gleyber Torres, Judge stole second place.
Torres surfaced before Andujar hit a grounder to shortstop. Taylor Walls stumbled and then rebounded with his throw at the first where Harold Ramirez failed to get a glove on the ball and he got away, allowing for a second run to score the game, giving the Yankees a 3-0 lead.
The Yankees made it 4-0 on a wild pitch in the seventh before Cortes finally gave up another hit with two outs late in the inning when Manuel Margot’s shot down right center just missed Judge.
The left-hander tricked Isaac Paredes into getting out of the inning.
The Yankees crossed three more runs in the ninth courtesy of a judge’s sacrifice fly and a run-scoring double from Rizzo.
It was a promising start to an important leg for the Yankees, who built much of their early success against under-.500 teams, including a 9-4 against the last-placed Orioles.
“It was a lot of fun to be a part of,” said Carpenter, who landed in Tampa three hours before the game started and was only in the lineup because Hicks had a scratch. “I was thrown right into the fire trying to put some good bats together.”