The Legend of Shpilkes Cervelli

"Less Filling!" "Tastes Great!" (AP)

With the Yankees and Red Sox both more or less locks to make the playoffs — the Baseball Prospectus Playoff OddsReport puts them at 99.8 and 99.9 percent chances — the battles between the two teams as they jockey for position tend to feel overhyped, and at roughly four hours and a million pitches apiece, impossibly bloated. Every now and then, something comes along to spice them up, however, and Tuesday night, it was Francisco Cervelli.

Unlike last year, the Yankees' backup catcher has been seen and heard from in a dosage more proportional to his minimal talents, which is to say seldom. Past the three-quarters mark of the season, he has 31 starts and 122 plate appearances, compared to 80 starts and 317 last year. He's no better a hitter or a fielder than he was before (.275/.339/.367 with 12 percent caught stealing, and .35 wild pitches plus passed balls per nine, compared to .271/.359/.367 with 14 percent caught stealing and .46 wild pitches plus passed balls per nine), and his ongoing presence has for some reason prevented the Yankees from recalling top prospect Jesus Montero, but his ability to otherwise do damage has been limited. If nothing else, he has just one sacrifice bunt this year, compared to eight last year.

He also has two homers, after not hitting one since 2009. The first one was a grand slam in Texas one ridiculous day, the second came on Tuesday night, a fifth-inning shot over the Green Monster off John Lackey — the New England analog to A.J. Burnett — that extended a 3-2 Yankees lead to 4-2. For a guy with an ERA around 6.00, Lackey took a fair bit of umbrage at Cervelli's post-homer celebration; he didn't stand there and pimp it the way David Ortiz does every damn time, but he made the "mistake" of emphatically clapping his hands as he crossed home plate, bruising the delicate sensibilities of the struggling pitcher.

Never mind the fact that if you were to turn the excess emoting of the adrenaline-charged backstop into a drinking game, we'd all be blind drunk by the third inning on a given night. Cervelli has a permanent case of shpilkes, the Yiddish word for "ants in the pants." He fist-pumps when the diner gets his order of two eggs over easy just right, and doesn't burn his toast. He fist-pumps when he's doing long division and winds up unburdened by a remainder. He looks around for someone to high-five when his checkbook balances to the penny. He gives the mailman a high-ten and a pat on the butt when his "0% Interest for 6 Months!" credit card offers show up. It's what he does. For whatever his flaws as a player — and we have cataloged them ad nasuem — he has battled hard to reach and remain in the big leagues, and he doesn't particularly care who knows that he's glad to be there every day, or how silly he can sometimes look. After the game, Lackey called his celebration "excessive." Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was somewhat more forgiving, though he did throw a slight backhanded jab: "That’s the kind of guy he is... He's real emotional. When he gets on base, after every strikeout that ends an inning, he pumps his fist. That’s the type of player he is. To me, the clap at home plate, he hit a home run — second of the year. Good for him."*

Those words had not yet been spoken when Lackey exacted his "revenge" by drilling Cervelli in the back with his first pitch of the seventh inning, a no-doubt purpose pitch by a hurler who already led the league in hit batsmen. Cervelli began jawing as he moved towards the mound before the much taller Saltalamacchia cut him off, and both benches emptied, with Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild for some reason getting ejected. It was a silly and self-defeating gesture, as it put the leadoff man on base at a time the Sox were down two runs; he would have been better served (Cerv'd?) to save retaliation for a date to be named later. Once order was restored, Cervelli advanced to second on a passed ball, and took third when Brett Gardner, noticing third baseman Jed Lowrie back on his heels, laid down a bunt on a 3-0 pitch and reached safely. Derek Jeter snuffed the rally by grounding into a double play, but he did collect the so-called "RBI of Shame" (not really an RBI, but then, Blown Saves get their own category, too) as the run scored to extend the lead to 5-2.

Cervelli wasn't done overemoting, either; this was his night to shine. With CC Sabathia departing after six grueling innings, 10 hits allowed, 10 strikeouts, and a season-high 743 pitches, Cory Wade came on for the Yankees, as did a warning to both benches. Wade retired Dustin Pedroia but walked Ortiz and yielded a hit to Lowrie, and Boone Logan came on to surrender a single to Carl Crawford to load the bases (though he showed visible frustration as the Ortiz failed to glaciate towards home plate). Left in the game to face two righties, Logan recovered to strike out both Saltalamacchia and Darnell McDonald, with Cervelli executing a series of fist pumps after the third out that probably raised a few more hackles throughout New England.

Rafael Soriano and Mariano Rivera took the Yankees home the rest of the way, though not without adventure; the former issued a leadoff walk in the eighth inning, the latter surrendered a leadoff double to Oritz and hit Saltalamacchia in the wrist with a pitch during an apparent swing — Joe Girardi was ejected for arguing the call — but he recovered to retire Josh Reddick on a game-ending line drive.

That a bit player such as Cervelli was able to get under the skin of the Sox and throw them (or at least Lackey) off their game elevated what was otherwise a wearying contest into a gripping one. It also elevated Cervelli into the absurdity of referring to himself and his style of play in the third person ("That's Cervelli"), which may have made him the least accomplished major leaguer to do so, at least this year. But for one night, he was a key part of a tense Yankee victory, and the center of attention. His antics aren't likely to be soon forgotten by partisans of either side.

*Update: As it turns out, Saltalamacchia got a bit more inflammatory with his comments, and needed to be rushed to the nearest emergency room to extract his foot from his mouth.

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