Miami Marlins pitcher Daniel Castano was laboring through the second inning of his MLB debut against the New York Mets on Saturday. In the span of four batters and 20 pitches, he gave up a full-count walk, a home run on a bad changeup and a ground-rule double.
Behind the plate, Francisco Cervelli could sense some nerves from his pitcher. That’s typical of a rookie thrust into an impromptu debut. The veteran catcher got back into position and kept calling the game one pitch at a time.
Nine pitches later, Castano walked off the mound with a pair of strikeouts against Brian Dozier and Billy Hamilton. Cervelli gave Castano a thumbs up between the two at-bats.
“They feel a lot pressure and are nervous even though everything’s normal. I feel the same thing all the time,” Cervelli said Sunday. “As a veteran, I just have to stay calm and try to be on their side. Don’t rush anything and just play the game.”
Cervelli’s experience and tranquil demeanor have been a focal point of the Marlins’ success since they returned to the field on Tuesday following their eight day layoff to get the club’s COVID-19 outbreak under control.
The Marlins had to replace 11 pitchers because of the outbreak, including eight members of their bullpen. Two rookies in 23-year-old Humberto Mejia and 25-year-old Castano started on consecutive days despite never playing above Class A Advanced and Double A, respectively, to fill the void of Sandy Alcantara, Caleb Smith and Jose Urena.
Some of his first in-person interactions with relievers were when they made their way to the mound.
Even with the makeshift roster and quick learning of his pitchers, Cervelli has helped Miami go 5-2 since their return to the field. The Marlins (7-3) continue to hold onto first place in the National League East as they prepare for a two-game series against the Toronto Blue Jays at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field on Tuesday and Wednesday to cap a 23-day trip on the road to begin the season.
“It’s been great. You’ve seen him with those guys, how he has them use their pitches and how he navigates lineups,” manager Don Mattingly said of Cervelli, who has also hit two clutch home runs since the team returned to play. “It’s huge. It’s just an area that you just don’t give credit to in baseball. They can’t measure it. They want to look at framing, framing, framing. Guys that have an understanding of the game and can lead a young pitcher, I don’t feel like that gets enough notice. He’s been tremendous for us.”
Cervelli, 33, leans on his experience and his love for the game to navigate through the Marlins’ challenges. He learned from CC Sabathia, Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter about how to hone in his leadership skills during the ealry portion of his career with the Yankees. He uses his vibrant personality to keep teammates loose in the clubhouse.
And when they get on the field, the reminder is the same: Focus on the game. Nothing else.
“Baseball is my life,” Cervelli said. “I try to play like this is the last day of my career. It’s got to be fun. The way the season’s going, sometimes it’s not fun. So we have to just keep smiling, screaming, doing things to make it fun because baseball is supposed to be that. We can have fun even with all the chaos and everything and try to enjoy it no matter what happened.”
Cervelli, though, will be the first to admit that the quarantine was hard on everyone, himself included. Watching 18 teammates and a pair of coaching staff members test positive for the coronavirus was a wake-up call for Cervelli and the team. The week-long quarantine gave players pause about what their next steps would be.
But Cervelli knew he had to remain optimistic and upbeat. Younger players on the team were looking to him for guidance.
“It was tough for me,” Cervelli said. “You can’t put me in a cage, but I have to behave myself, especially with the younger guys. If you’re a veteran or you’re a leader, they’re going to follow you. If you have a bad attitude, they’re going to do the same thing. I’m trying to be myself and be as positive as possible and remind them that this isn’t how the big leagues look. The big leagues are something else, something different than this. This year is very particular. I want to show them how it is to be in the big leagues. It’s the sky. It’s heaven. Right now, it’s a little uncomfortable, but we’re just here like kids playing baseball.”
Teammates have appreciated Cervelli’s demeanor.
“When he puts those fingers down to call a pitch, he’s calling it with a purpose,” pitcher Pablo Lopez said. “He has a good plan. He tells you his plan. We get together to try to come up with a plan so that when game time comes around, we know what we have to do. It really gives us a lot of confidence when we take the mound.”
Confidence has turned into success. Despite dropping consecutive games against the Mets on Saturday and Sunday, the Marlins are still four games over .500.
“We don’t have to be beautiful. We don’t have to win games in a beautiful way,” Cervelli said. “We just have to win and score one more run than everybody else.”