A few years ago I realized that one of the qualities I appreciate most in people, and value most in friends, is enthusiasm. I’m not talking about perkiness or a simple excess of energy–unrelenting positivity can be grating, and someone who is revved up all the time can be exhausting–but the capacity to nerd out over something specific, to get almost inappropriately jazzed about some little thing in life that brings you joy, seems to me to be a key to happiness, and when I see someone I know showing that kind of oddball affection for something, it fosters affection in me for that person.
That has a lot to do with why I absolutely love watching Francisco Cervelli. It’s not that I think he’s a coming star in the major leagues (he’ll stick around due to his defense, but he has no power at the plate and seems headed for a career as a Plan B starter or well-regarded backup). I have no real desire for him to get more playing time as long as Jorge Posada is still active and hitting and Jesus Montero is still catching. Whenever Cervelli does get into a game, however, I can’t keep my eyes off him.
It’s not just his superficial resemblance to a young Chris Penn. Cervelli has enthusiasm for miles, and he’s not your typical sour-faced, hard-nosed baseball red-ass (Cervelli hits without batting gloves and wears his socks high, but he didn’t balk at wearing a silly-looking, newfangled batting helmet per his doctor’s orders), nor is he a Nick Swisher-style flake. Cervelli just loves to play the game. When he’s on the field, every move he makes broadcasts how much fun he’s having, whether he’s celebrating a big play, making a dramatic windup to throw strike three around the horn, cracking up his pitchers during his quick, energetic mound visits, or recounting the previous half inning in rapid-fire speech between explosive smiles in the dugout. Cervelli did all that and more Tuesday night as he went 3-for-3, made an entertaining circus catch on a foul ball, and scored two of the Yankees’ four runs in their 4-1 win over the Orioles.
A.J. Burnett cruised through the first two innings of Tuesday night’s game, using his fastball almost exclusively until Garrett Atkins led off the third with a single off Alex Rodriguez’s glove. Burnett’s command briefly evaporated while pitching from the stretch, leading to a five-pitch walk of Rhyne Hughes. Ninth-place hitter Cesar Izturis followed with a bunt to the third-base side of the mound, but Burnett’s throw sailed into the basepath and tipped off Robinson Cano’s glove at first just before Izturis crossed the bag, forcing Cano to pull his glove back to avoid injury.
That error put Burnett in a serious jam with one run in, men on second and third, and no outs, but with the lineup turning over, A.J. turned to his curveball and struck out Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, and Matt Wieters in order, getting all three swinging over curveballs and going to the curve for three consecutive pitches at the end of both the Markakis and Wieters at-bats.
The man who called those pitches, our pal Cervelli, hit the first pitch Baltimore starter Brian Matusz threw in the bottom of that inning into the right-center-field gap. Center fielder Adam Jones dove for Cervelli’s sinking liner but came up several inches short, and Cervelli legged out a stand-up triple, his first three-base hit since he was with High-A Tampa in 2007 and just the third of his professional career. Four pitches later, Ramiro Peña drove him home with a groundout and the game was tied.
In the top of the fourth, with two out and Miguel Tejada on second via a leadoff ground-rule double into the right-field corner, Atkins hit a foul pop toward the Yankee dugout. Cervelli raced back toward the camera pit, adjusted slightly, then made a lunging catch over the protective screen in front of the dugout. His momentum then tipped his center of gravity a bit too far, and he began to slide, on his belly, down the railing along the stairs only to be caught by his manager and hitting coach.
In the bottom of the fifth, with the game still tied 1-1, Brett Gardner led off by battling back from 0-2 to work a seven-pitch walk. Cervelli followed by also falling behind 0-2 on a pair of called strikes, then singled into right field to put runners at first and second. Peña followed with a sacrifice bunt to the third-base side of the mound only to have an exact replay of Burnett’s error on Izturis’s bunt unfold with Matusz’s throw tailing into the basepath and beyond second baseman Ty Wigginton’s reach allowing Gardner to come around with the go-ahead run. After a pair of outs, Matusz walked Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez (the latter after a nine-pitch battle) to force in Cervelli and give the Yankees a 3-1 lead.
An inning later, Cervelli came up with Marcus Thames on first via a single and one out and, after taking strike one, dropped down a perfect surprise bunt up the third-base line and beat it out for a hit. The Yankees failed to score in that inning, but when they did add an insurance run in the eighth, there was Cervelli again, bunting Gardner, who had beaten out a slow-roller up the third base line and stolen second, to third to set up a sacrifice fly from Peña.
Burnett, meanwhile, was excellent again, allowing just the one unearned run on his own throwing error while striking out eight in 7 1/3 innings against just two walks and five hits. Damaso Marte, who struck out switch-hitter Matt Wieters, and Alfredo Aceves, who needed every inch of the ballpark to retire Miguel Tejada on a fly that backed defensive replacement Greg Golson up against the Yankee bullpen, finished the eighth. Joba Chamberlain pitched around a harmless single in the ninth, striking out two (one of them on a curve) to earn his second save in as many days.
As for how the other half lives, Brian Matusz can’t catch a break. The rookie’s last two appearances were both quality starts against the defending champions, but he got a total of one unearned run of support in the two games and took the loss both times. The Yankees, meanwhile, have a backup catcher who is 12-for-31 on the season and leads the league in enthusiasm.