Commentary

Cervelli's antics reignite Yanks-Sox feud

The high-energy backup catcher was able to get under Boston's skin in Bombers' win

Updated: August 31, 2011, 12:07 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

BOSTON -- Translated from Italian into English, Francisco Cervelli's name means "Frankie Brains.''

It remains to be seen whether he is aptly named or comically mislabeled, because, as we know, people's names don't always reflect who they are. Aaron Small, for instance, was 6-foot-5.

And in the New York Yankees' 5-2 win over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on Tuesday, a victory that pulled the Yankees to within a half-game of Boston in the race for the AL East title, Cervelli provided evidence to support both sides of the argument.

In the fifth inning, Cervelli was looking fastball all the way on a 3-1 pitch from John Lackey and absolutely crushed it out onto Lansdowne Street to give the Yankees a 4-2 lead.

That was very, very cervelli, as in brainy.

But as he reached home plate, he stomped on it with both feet and clapped his hands loudly and right in the face of Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who apparently thought that a little too much celebration for a third career home run.

That, too, was very, very Cervelli, although how brainy it was is very much open to question.

Because on his next at-bat, leading off the seventh, Lackey drilled him in the back with a fastball, and as we've seen so many times before in a Yankees-Red Sox series, it was on.

Cervelli turned to jaw with Saltalamacchia. Lackey, whose eyes burned a hole into Cervelli's back all the way to the dugout after the home run demonstration, jawed at Cervelli. For a moment, it appeared the conversation might turn physical, but Joe Girardi charged out of the Yankees dugout to get between the two catchers, and everyone on both rosters somewhat reluctantly made their way out of clubhouses and bullpens to mill around aimlessly on the infield, just in case anyone was taking attendance.

Somehow, Lackey, Cervelli and Saltalamacchia remained in the game but Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild, a generally soft-spoken individual, managed to get himself ejected by third-base umpire Mark Wegner.

Asked if he had said a bad word to the umpire, Rothschild said, "No.''

Then, with perfect comic timing, he added, "More than one.''

The act of retaliation by Lackey wound up backfiring on the Red Sox when Cervelli wound up scoring the fifth run of the game on Derek Jeter's double-play grounder, so perhaps there was a method to the Yankees backup catcher's madness after all.

And it turned out there was more than a touch of intelligence in the way he managed not to get himself run from the game, for as we were to learn afterward, the regular catcher, Russell Martin, was unavailable due to an accumulation of dings that both he and Girardi characterized as minor.

He even got in one last dig at the end of the seventh, when, as Boone Logan was delivering his own left hook to an imaginary midsection in celebration of striking out Darnell McDonald to end the inning with the bases loaded, Cervelli was running off the field delivering a high-speed series of straight rights in the direction of the sky.

Take that, he seemed to be saying, to the city of Boston as a whole -- and for this night at least, Boston had no effective response.

"That's Cervelli,'' said Cervelli, lapsing into the third person, a la Rickey Henderson. "Like I say, I never try to do to show up any other player. That's just me. I feel happy when we get a strikeout, and it's a big game, it's bases loaded. So for me, it's good, and I try to transfer the energy to my teammates.''

True, Cervelli has always played like he is mainlining espresso laced with Red Bull. It is not only one of the reasons he is in the big leagues, it might be the only reason.

In this game, it worked, but taken as a body of work, Cervelli's on-field antics have a tendency to earn him some enmity, even among his teammates. During a game in Chicago, Cervelli and Freddy Garcia, a fellow Venezuelan although not of Italian descent like Cervelli, could be seen conversing animatedly on the mound several times.

Afterward, Garcia said the 25-year-old backup "has to calm down a little,'' an assessment both Cervelli and Girardi seemed to agree with.

[+] EnlargeFrancisco Cervelli
Elsa/Getty ImagesFrancisco Cervelli's antics didn't go over well with John Lackey as the pitcher retaliated in the seventh inning, forcing the benches to clear.

"It was bad, before,'' Cervelli admitted. "In the minor leagues, I had more energy. I've got so much adrenaline, and I maybe need to control it a little bit, but I don't try to do anything bad. It's part of the game, it's Yankees-Boston. Everybody wants to win.''

And of course, the history of this rivalry is full of confrontations that make Tuesday night's bench-clearing conversation look like an episode of "The View.''

Everyone's favorite, of course, was when Pedro Martinez tossed Don Zimmer to the turf in Game 3 of the 2003 ALCS. The Yankees wound up going to the World Series, sending the Red Sox home in seven games.

The next year, Alex Rodriguez and Jason Varitek nearly brawled -- although Varitek conveniently forgot to remove his mask -- and at the end of that story, the tables were turned as the Red Sox accomplished the greatest comeback in ALCS history at the expense of the Yankees.

In 2005, Gary Sheffield exchanged swipes with a fan here, and that one ended up a wash -- both teams bowed out of the playoffs in the first round.

The ending to the story of the 2011 season has yet to be written, but however it comes out, the night Francisco Cervelli got under the skin of Red Sox Nation is bound to be remembered. By the time the game had finally reached its conclusion a minute short of four hours old, Cervelli had been dumped again, this time by reliever Matt Albers, with the bases loaded in the eighth, but the showdown ended uneventfully when Cervelli grounded out to end the inning.

And in the ninth, Girardi joined Rothschild in the sin bin after provoking Wegner to eject him during an argument involving whether Saltalamacchia had swung at a Mariano Rivera pitch that ticked off his hand.

"It was an emotional game,'' said Girardi, who added he did not think the bad blood, which has lingered between these two teams for decades, would carry over into the rest of the series.

But with A-Rod likely out for the entire series with a sprained thumb, it seems likely that Cervelli will assume the role he usually plays, that of Public Enemy No. 13, even if he is unlikely to play again this week, and even less likely that the Fenway fans will ever come to the ballpark prepared to mock him the way they mocked A-Rod a couple of years ago with Cinderella masks that were fashioned to resemble the so-called mystery blonde he had been photographed with the night before at a Toronto nightclub.

"I don't try to make nobody mad,'' Cervelli said. "But it's just me. It's not for everybody. A lot of players take it personally, and maybe I'll try to change a little bit in the future.''

"I thought Cervy was smart tonight,'' Girardi said. "We needed him to stay in the game and he did.''

Maybe so, but incidents like these between the Yankees and Red Sox tend not to just go away overnight. By the time the last chapter of this tale is finally written, we might just have a better idea of much of a genius Frankie Brains really is.

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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