BOSTON -- It's a matter of debate whether celebratin' Francisco Cervelli, dubbed the "Yankee Clapper" after the game by blogger Steve Silva (aka the Boston Dirt Dog), exceeded the bounds of baseball protocol Tuesday night.
"I thought it was a little excessive, honestly," said Red Sox pitcher John Lackey, who nonetheless contended he did not reward the fist-pumping, hand-clapping Cervelli with a fastball into his numbers after he took Lackey onto Landsdowne Street on his previous at-bat, claiming he merely was trying to move him off the plate.
"It's Cervelli," the Yankees backup catcher exclaimed in a bit of third-person self-assessment, making no apologies for actions that briefly caused the benches to empty in the seventh inning and led to the ejection of Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild.
But no discussion of excessive as it regards Tuesday night's game at Fenway Park would be complete without mentioning that the Red Sox left a staggering 16 runners on base while crossing home plate just twice in a 5-2 loss to the
Yankees and CC Sabathia, a defeat that drew the New Yorkers to within a half-game of the first-place Sox in the American League East.
"We did?" said David Ortiz, who was on base three times but failed to score. "I didn't know we had that many."
From one through nine, the Sox put at least one runner on base in every inning. They left the bases loaded twice -- in the second inning, when Sabathia induced Jacoby Ellsbury to roll out to second, and in the seventh, when lefty reliever Boone Logan struck out Jarrod Saltalamacchia on three pitches and Darnell McDonald on a full count.
Marco Scutaro ran into an out in the third inning when he tried to stretch a single into a double, and Ortiz advanced only from second to third on what should have been a run-scoring single off Logan by Carl Crawford, who already had homered off Sabathia.
"That ball CC hit, all I saw was lights," Ortiz said. "I didn't know where the ball was. I had to turn around and see where the ball was going to land.
"I know I should have scored on that ball."
Sabathia had come into the game 0-4 with a 7.20 ERA against the Red Sox, unsightly numbers that suggested the Yankees would be in trouble come October if their ace couldn't beat Boston. Tuesday night, the Sox did everything they could to make Sabathia uncomfortable, tugging at his jumbo jersey, nipping at his ample heels, making him perspire more than a 290-pound behemoth has reason to expect on a low-humidity late August night in the Fens.
They had 10 hits, and made him work out of the stretch in all six innings he pitched. They made him throw 128 pitches, the most he has ever thrown in pinstripes and just two fewer than the career-high 130 he threw in a complete-game win for the Milwaukee Brewers three years earlier.
The only thing they couldn't do was make him bend to their will. Sabathia struck out 10, two apiece in each of the first five innings. He fooled MVP candidate Adrian Gonzalez badly with sliders as he whiffed him three straight times. Ortiz went down swinging twice before lining an opposite-field single on his third at-bat.
The supposed psychological edge the Sox hold on CC was proven to be hokum, which is pretty much what it has been all along.
"He was strong," Ortiz said. "He pitched totally different from the last time. The last time he threw more offspeed pitches. This time he used his fastball more, and was really good locating it."
It was Sabathia back in New York who had become the first Yankees pitcher to hit Ortiz with a pitch after Ortiz had incurred the wrath of the Bombers for flipping his bat following a home run. The Yankee lefty opened his outing Tuesday night by hitting leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury after Lackey had hit Curtis Granderson in the hand with a pitch in the top of the first, although plate umpire Ed Rapuano ruled it struck Granderson's bat first.
Passions weren't stirred, however, until the seventh. Cervelli, who had arrived at home plate with a resounding clap after his fifth-inning home run (just the third of his career), took a Lackey pitch in the back, then took a few steps toward the mound. The benches slowly emptied -- the members of the Yankees' bullpen never made it past the warning track -- and there would be no rumble, just some sharp words exchanged.
"I was definitely not trying to hit him," Lackey said. "I was trying to knock him down, for sure. Go look where he stands in the box. You've got to get him off the plate."
While he found Cervelli's emoting excessive, Lackey insisted he was not settling scores.
"That's not a spot you handle something like that," he said, refrerring to the fact the score was 4-2 at the time.
"I was trying to move him off the plate. I've been fined a couple of times for hitting guys and I paid them because they were right. But this one, I'm not afraid to tell you if I was trying to hit somebody. I would have told him to his face."
Saltalamacchia placed himself between Cervelli and Lackey, and wound up having an animated discussion with the Yankees catcher, who was yelling at the Sox pitcher in his native Spanish. (He's from Venezuela, but because he is of Italian descent, he chose to play for Italy in the World Baseball Classic.)
"He was obviously upset," Saltalamacchia said. "I can see how it looks bad. He hits a home run and he gets hit.
"I told him, 'We're obviously not trying to hit you there. Nobody out, nobody on base, we don't want you guys starting something.'"
Still, the Sox catcher added, "You don't show anybody up. You've got to stay in your boundaries and don't show anybody up. We sure as heck don't do it and we don't expect them to do it."
Sure enough, Cervelli came around to score on a passed ball, bunt single and double-play grounder, and the Yankees' lead was three. On a night the Sox scored only on Crawford's home run and an RBI double by Scutaro, it might as well have been 30.
Lackey pitched like, well, Lackey -- five runs (four earned) in seven innings -- the kind of performance that enabled the Sox to win seven of his previous eight decisions but was insufficient Tuesday.
Saltalamacchia, meanwhile, would himself be hit by a pitch in the ninth, while swinging at a cutter from Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. The pitch should have been called a strike, argued Yankees manager Joe Girardi, who slam-dunked his cap for emphasis after being ejected from the game by third-base umpire Mark Wegner.
So did an excitable backup catcher succeed in goosing a "showdown" between two rivals who have all but clinched their spots in the October tournament?
Gentlemen, start your fist pumps.
Gordon Edes covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.