Can you imagine the venom that must flow in the streets of Boston at mere mention of the name Francisco Cervelli? He is the player on the opposite team that you hate without reservation. It isn’t the type of dislike for a great player that comes with a sprinkle of respect, it’s one hundred percent hatred. He’s a bench player, after all, but he celebrates his small achievements as if he’s just driven in the game-winning run in game seven. His favorite bit comes after a big strikeout to silence a scoring threat at the end of an inning. He pops out of his crouch, hops towards the dugout, and begins pumping his fist as if shaking salt into his opponent’s open wound.
But he’s our Frankie Brains, and we love him. (Sure, his bat is anemic, but that doesn’t fit with this narrative so we’ll ignore that part.) We love that he’s a grinder. We love that he seems to know that he’s living a major league dream and won’t blink for fear of missing something. Frankie Brains.
Tonight in Boston, Frankie took things to another level, but we’ll get to that. When he stepped in against Ugly John Lackey to lead off the top of the fifth, things were already going well for the Yanks. Everyone knew this was big game, not just for the Yankees as they were chasing the Red Sox in the standings, but also for Tuesday night’s starter, CC Sabathia, who had been repeatedly chased by the Red Sox, giving up six, six, and then seven runs in his last three starts against them.
Early on it looked like Boston might have more of the same planned for CC. The Yankees had taken a 1-0 lead in the top of the second when Eric Chavez had squeaked a soft line drive through the infield, but Boston seemed poised to erase that early lead. Even Sabathia’s outs were difficult, and when the Sox loaded the bases in the second inning, there was a very real sense that the game might have been hanging in the balance. (Less optimistic fans can be forgiven for thinking the entire season was riding on each pitch.) When Jacoby Ellsbury finally grounded out to end the inning, the Red Sox still hadn’t scored, but Sabathia had already spent 51 pitches to record just six outs. The outlook wasn’t brilliant.
Curtis Granderson drew a walk to open the fourth inning, then Robinson Canó stepped up and reminded any skeptics that he’s the best hitting second baseman in baseball. (But Boston fans probably know this. Canó entered the game with the highest career batting average of any Yankee at Fenway Park with a minimum of 200 ABs. His .352 put him two points up on a guy named Lou; his 2 for 3 night on Tuesday would widen that gap.) After fouling off a pitch from Lackey, Canó smoothly stroked a long fly that bounced high off the wall in the left center before nearly bounding over Ellsbury’s head. Granderson scored easily, and the score was 3-0.
Things got sticky for CC in the the bottom half. After retiring Jed Lowrie for the first out, Sabathia gave up a no doubt home run to Carl Crawford. Pitchers make mistakes, and good hitters hit mistakes, so maybe that’s all this was. But then Jarrod Saltalamacchia singled firmly to center, Darnell McDonald singled to right, and suddenly Boston was rallying. Sabathia buckled down and struck out Ellsbury, but Marco Scutaro — of course — rifled a double down the third base line to score Saltalamacchia and the Sox only trailed by a single run. Sabathia rebounded to strike out Adrian González, but at that point this game had all the markings of a classic Yankee-Red Sox tilt that wouldn’t be decided until the final pitch was thrown.
All of which brings us to Cervelli’s at bat in the top of the fifth. Frankie worked the count to 3-1 against Lackey, then launched an absolute bomb over the wall in left. For just a minute now, put yourself in Frankie’s shoes. Before Tuesday night you’ve had a total of 176 at bats and hit only two home runs. Here you are in what some people might say is the biggest series of your team’s season, and you’ve just hit a home run over the Green Monster to double your team’s lead. Might you be a little fired up?
Frankie was fired up. He clapped his hands a single time as he planted his foot on home plate and turned back towards the third base dugout. I understand that there are hundreds of unwritten baseball rules out there, and for the most part I accept them, but I’m not sure why you can’t clap your hands when you hit a home run. When you’re Derek Jeter and you do it after every single base hit, it’s okay. But when you’re Francisco Cervelli and you do it after hitting a big home run, apparently it isn’t.
The next time Cervelli came up he was leading off the seventh inning and the Yankees still led, 4-2. Lackey’s first pitch was a straight fast ball aimed directly at Cervelli’s shoulder, and the benches cleared. Viewers at home were immediately treated to a replay of the fifth inning home run, but this time we also saw a clip that showed Lackey staring down Cervelli as he touched home, clapped, and headed to the dugout. The smoke signals bellowing from his ears sent a clear message: “The next time you come up I’m going to drill you.” And drill him he did.
Once order was restored, Cervelli advanced to second on a past ball, then went to third when Brett Gardner earned a single by beating out a sacrifice bunt. Derek Jeter grounded into a double play, but Cervelli scored (without clapping), exacting a measure of revenge. Nobody messes with Frankie Brains.
Sabathia had made it through six gutty innings, throwing 128 pitches along the way and striking out ten, and Cory Wade had taken care of business in the seventh, bringing us to Rafael Soriano and the eighth. When he walked Ellsbury to open the frame, the Fenway faithful began to smell blood in the water. Marco Scutaro came to the plate and a strange thing happened — I was worried. Now, I ask you, what has the world come to when the thought of Marco Scutaro walking to the plate strikes fear in the heart of anyone except the fans of his own team?
Scutaro worked the count to 2-1, then showed me exactly why I was worried. He roped a line drive that was plainly ticketed for the gap in left center field. Ellsbury would score standing up, Scutaro would coast into second, and suddenly the Red Sox would be in serious business, down only two with a man on second, nobody out, and González, Dustin Pedroia, and David Ortíz due up.
But the ball didn’t fall in. Last week our man Jon DeRosa wrote a great piece on the analysis of defensive statistics, and one thing those numbers will tell you is that Brett Gardner is the best left fielder in baseball. I don’t need statistics to tell me that because I watch him do amazing things game after game. The ball that Scutaro hit was an absolute rope, and Gardner had no business getting to it. Gardner always plays shallow, but Fenway’s Monster lets him play even closer to the infield. To get to Scutaro’s ball he had to get a perfect jump, take the exact right line, and be fast enough to beat the ball to the spot. He did all that, but just barely. He had to leap a bit at the last second to snare the drive, and Ellsbury, who had already gone just beyond second, had to race back to first. The Great One would come on to get the final three outs in relatively uneventful fashion (unless you consider Girardi’s ejection eventful), but the save should probably have gone to Gardner.
So the Yankees now sit tied with the Red Sox in the loss column, but with twenty-nine games left on the schedule, it’s tempting to discount the importance of this game. I can’t do that. Since they managed a win (and since it was credited to Sabathia, his eighteenth) it’s a good win. If they had lost, however, cementing the idea in some minds that neither they nor their ace could beat the Red Sox, this game could’ve been hugely important. Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about that right now.
[Photo Credit: Winslow Townson/AP Photo]