Francisco Cervelli a little older and a lot more mature now

Yankees' Francisco Cervelli smiles after taking pitches in

Yankees' Francisco Cervelli smiles after taking pitches in practice. (Feb. 20, 2013) (Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Francisco Cervelli, by his own admission, didn't handle the demotion well.

But in retrospect, the catcher said being sent to Triple-A at the start of last season was the best thing for him.

"I look in the past and I think it was the best,'' Cervelli said Saturday after starting the Yankees' exhibition opener, an 8-3 victory over the Braves at Champion Stadium.

But it took the 26-year-old Cervelli a while to get to that point. About two months, by his estimation.

"The first two months in Triple-A was bad,'' he said. "You don't understand it in the moment, but when you have a little time and you think a little fresh, you realize things happen for a reason, and always a positive reason.''

Now Cervelli finds himself in a battle for the Yankees' starting catching job with Chris Stewart and Austin Romine after spending the vast majority of last season with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

That he ended up there came as a shock. He seemed a lock to be Russell Martin's backup -- until suddenly he wasn't.

On the final day of spring training, Cervelli was called into Joe Girardi's office and was told the Yankees had traded for Stewart, a defensive specialist. Stewart was a defensive upgrade over Cervelli, whose defense, by his own admission, had slipped a bit.

But the emotional catcher hadn't reached that point of self-introspection on the day of the Stewart trade, and his reaction didn't go over well with some members of the organization. In the words of one official, Cervelli acted "like he was Mike Piazza getting sent down.''

For the first two months of 2012, Cervelli languished in the cold weather and relative anonymity of the minors, the experience made worse by the fact that Scranton played the season on the road as its stadium underwent a major renovation.

But a visit from his parents, Manuel and Damelis, who traveled from Venezuela, started to change his attitude.

"Sometimes when your mind is not there, it's hard to put things together,'' Cervelli said. "But my family came and they talked to me a little hard. They said, 'Hey, you came here to the States to play baseball. That's what you like to do. Be a man.' They said, 'You better play better, and that's it.' ''

He added: "Just to see Mom and Dad in the stands for me was everything for me.''

Cervelli thinks he began to turn things around shortly after that and had a strong second half of the season. He played winter ball, working primarily on his throwing, a weakness that he and Girardi targeted.

On Saturday, Cervelli threw out the first runner to test him, Todd Cunningham, gunning him down for the final out of the second inning.

"That's a beautiful throw. You can't make it any better than that. That's a good sign,'' said Girardi, who met with all of his catchers Friday to stress to them that defense will be his priority in deciding the starting job.

Cervelli believes that the defensive work he's done has him back to the level he was in 2009, when, as a 23-year-old, he appeared in 42 games.

"I think he was trying too hard,'' Girardi said. "When you try too hard, a lot of times you get tense and your athleticism doesn't come out.''

Cervelli desperately wants to win the starting job, but he doesn't think it's the Yankees to whom he needs to prove himself. Not at the moment, anyway.

"I have to show it to myself,'' he said. "Because if you don't believe you can do it, nobody's going to believe it. I have to show myself I can do it. I played more than 100 games last year between here and winter ball, and now I realize I can do it. Let's do what I have to do.''

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