Cervelli lands first blow in backstop battle

February, 23, 2013
2/23/13
6:25
PM ET
Francisco Cervelli Mike Janes/Four Seam Images/AP ImagesIf he becomes the Yankees' starting catcher in 2013, Francisco Cervelli will have his family to thank.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- In the annals of Yankee lore, the intervention staged by the Cervelli family is not likely to be remembered as fondly as say, the time back in 1951 when Mutt Mantle drove from Commerce, Okla. to Kansas City to snap his son Mickey out of his funk after he was sent down to the minor leagues.

But if Francisco Cervelli winds up winning the Yankees starting catcher’s job this spring and goes on to have a long and successful career in pinstripes, the story may become the stuff of legend back in Valencia, Venezuela, Cervelli’s hometown, from where his mother and father flew last May to arrive in Buffalo with a message similar to the one Mutt delivered to Mickey.

"Hey, you came to the States to play baseball. That’s what you love to do, so be a man and let’s play," is how Cervelli distilled the conversation after the Yankees beat the Atlanta Braves, 8-3, in their preseason opener at Champions Field on Saturday.

Cervelli, who is locked in a competition with Chris Stewart, the man whose arrival caused his departure on the final day of spring training last year, was the starting catcher in this one and threw out the only runner who tried to steal on him, giving him an early lead for the job.

[+] EnlargeFrancisco Cervelli
John Munson/THE STAR-LEDGER/USA TODAY SportsCervelli threw out a runner in the Yankees' 8-3 victory over the Braves on Saturday.
But Cervelli has been here before -- he had a good spring last year, too. Good enough, he thought, to go north with the team as the backup to Russell Martin, only to have the rug yanked out from under him when the Yankees acquired Stewart in a trade two days before the season opener.

Just like that, Cervelli’s destination changed from Yankee Stadium to wherever the Triple-A Empire State Yankees called home in 2012, which was nowhere while their stadium in Scranton was being renovated.

The sudden demotion blindsided Cervelli, who cried openly in the clubhouse when he heard the news and vowed to prove to the Yankees that he could be an everyday catcher in the big leagues -- and promptly went into a two-month funk that culminated in Manuel and Damelis Cervelli making their pilgrimage from Valencia to Buffalo.

"I told them I’m fine, but they’re 50-something years old, so they do whatever they want," Cervelli said. “They showed up in Buffalo. They said, ‘We’re here, so what are we going to do now? We’re going to follow the bus everywhere you go so you better play better, and that’s it.'"

The presence of his family -- Cervelli said for the next three weeks, they would sit behind the on-deck circle and cheer, or heckle, him according to what was required -- combined with the sudden death of a favorite uncle opened his eyes to the fact that while minor league life might not compare with the big leagues, it was a lot better than many other alternatives.

"I realized, I’m still alive, I’m healthy, I do what I like, so why am I still making complaints?" he said. "Let’s go. Let’s play baseball and have fun."

After considering himself primarily a defensive catcher early in his career, Cervelli acknowledged he allowed his defense to slip in 2011.

"I got into bad habits, rushing, trying to throw the ball too hard, trying to throw the ball before it was in my glove," he said. "Maybe it was frustration, or if you don’t play every day, you want to do things perfect. I was a little young, too. You’re a little desperate sometimes.

"Now I work relaxed behind the plate. Same energy, but I just try to be more relaxed and let my body go."

That "energy" has not always endeared Cervelli to opponents or even teammates. His habit of pumping his fist on an inning-ending strikeout has rankled opposing players like Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and his tendency to exuberantly exhort his own pitchers once caused Freddy Garcia to remark, "The catcher has to calm down out there."

But Joe Girardi said he has always liked the enthusiasm Cervelli brings to the field. "Cervy’s always been a guy that’s been high energy and brings a lot of energy to everything he does," the manager said.

But he also agreed, "I think you can give too much energy at times. I think there’s a time and a place for it. You set the tone for your club, in a sense."

Cervelli helped continue a tone set by right fielder Zoilo Almonte in the first inning, who gunned down a runner trying to go from first to third on a single to bail out David Phelps. In the second, Cervelli threw out Todd Cunningham to end the inning.

"That’s a beautiful throw. You can’t make it any better than that," Girardi said. "He also did a nice job blocking. I was pleased with what he did behind the plate."

It was the kind of performance that will catch the manager’s eye this spring, since Girardi is on record as saying the Yankees are looking for a defensive catcher this spring and that the starting job will not be won at the plate, but behind it.

It was a message Girardi delivered through the media last week, and personally to Cervelli, Stewart and Austin Romine, the darkhorse candidate, in a meeting Friday night.

"I made it clear to them that defense is No. 1 here," Girardi said. "We need to play good defense."

That has to come as welcome news to Cervelli, whose career batting average is a soft .271, with five home runs, 71 RBIs and a .692 OPS in parts of five big league seasons, and to Stewart, whose career BA is .217.

Loosing that pressure, of course, has been somewhat offset by the added pressure of the revelation that Cervelli's name is in the records of Anthony Bosch’s Biogenesis clinic, raising suspicions that he may at one time have used illegal performance-enhancing drugs. Cervelli admitted to having visited the clinic but has denied using PEDs.

"I don’t feel pressure," he said. "I’m just going to go out every day, do what I like to do and have fun. They decide what they’re going to do."

Told, jokingly, by a reporter that he had won the starting job in the first spring training game, Cervelli laughed.

"I guarantee I’m going to cry when you guys tell me that," he said.

Only this time, they won’t be tears of despair, and if his parents come to see him play, it will be in the Bronx, not Buffalo.

NOTES

As planned, Phelps worked two innings, allowed three singles and, with the help of his defense, no runs. He said he was pleased with his work, and Girardi agreed, saying he was happy with all the first-pitch strikes … Robinson Cano hit a solo home run in the fifth, and in addition to his excellent play in the field, Almonte belted a two-run homer in the third … The Braves were incredibly sloppy in the field, committing three errors, a passed ball and a wild pitch that scored a run in the first three innings … Cano, Mark Teixeira (0-for-3) and Eduardo Nunez (1-for-3) played the first five innings … Adam Warren starts in the Yankees' spring home opener against the Blue Jays Sunday at 1:05 p.m.
Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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TEAM LEADERS

WINS LEADER
Masahiro Tanaka
WINS ERA SO IP
12 2.51 135 129
OTHER LEADERS
BAJ. Ellsbury .286
HRM. Teixeira 17
RBIM. Teixeira 48
RB. Gardner 61
OPSB. Gardner .780
ERAM. Tanaka 2.51
SOM. Tanaka 135