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02/23/2013 5:05 PM ET

Cervelli's defense impresses in spring opener

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Yankees still believe their three-headed catching competition may take all of Spring Training to sort out, but Francisco Cervelli definitely made a good first impression in the club's exhibition opener Saturday.

Manager Joe Girardi wants to see strong defensive play from his catchers this spring, and Cervelli answered the call in New York's 8-3 win over the Braves, firing a rocket to second base that nabbed Atlanta's Todd Cunningham attempting to steal in the second inning.

"Amazing. It feels really good," Cervelli said. "I've been working a lot on my throwing, so I'm not surprised. I threw really good in winter ball. I got a lot of people out, and I feel like I'm back to what I used to be in '09."

Girardi said that Cervelli also did a nice job blocking balls behind the plate on Saturday before noting, "I mean, that's a beautiful throw. You can't make it any better than that, so that's a good sign."

Cervelli is vying with last season's backup, Chris Stewart and prospect Austin Romine to serve as the Yankees' Opening Day catcher. Cervelli went 0-for-2 with a walk while Romine had a two-run single, but Girardi said he has urged the catchers not to worry about their offensive statistics.

"I made it clear to them in a meeting [Friday]," Girardi said. "Defense is No. 1 here. We need to play good defense."

Cervelli was disappointed to be demoted to the Minors as camp concluded last season, but said that he eventually came to see the setback as an opportunity to hone his game.

"I just tried to cover all the little holes that I used to have in the past," Cervelli said. "I've been working so hard. I want to hit, too, but the priority here is the defense."

Cervelli said that he felt his throwing peaked at the big league level in 2009, in part because he had trouble adjusting to not playing every day. The result was that Cervelli said he developed bad habits of rushing throws and jumping at pitches before they reached his glove.

He also experienced a rash of passed balls last year at Triple-A, seeming so upset by the demotion to the Minors that his parents, Manuel and Damelis, traveled from their home in Venezuela to trail their son around the league for three weeks.

"When they saw the situation, I told them, 'I'm fine,' but they're 50-something years old so they do whatever they want," Cervelli said. "They showed up in Buffalo. They said, 'We're here, so what are we going to do now? We're going to follow the bus everywhere we go so you better play better, and that's it.'"

Cervelli has worked with Minor League catching instructor Julio Mosquera to tighten the defensive aspects of his game, and after playing in winter ball, Cervelli believes he reported to camp with the necessary tools to win the everyday catching job.

"Right now, I look at the past and I think it was [for] the best," Cervelli said. "Maybe last year, the first two months in Triple-A was bad. The frustration, 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."

Jeter runs infield for first time since broken ankle

TAMPA, Fla. -- Yankees captain Derek Jeter ran on the infield dirt Saturday at George M. Steinbrenner Field, the first time he has done so since breaking his left ankle last October.

"He ran the bases a bit, slowly," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said after New York's 8-3 Grapefruit League victory over the Braves in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. "He's at least outside, doing some running, so that's good."

Jeter has said that he expects to be ready for the Yankees' April 1 opener against the Red Sox in New York, but he is about two weeks behind the rest of the team's position players in his preparation.

The Yankees expect Eduardo Nunez to receive the majority of the early spring reps at shortstop, with Jeter first being eased into duty as a designated hitter later in camp.

Rotation candidate Phelps effective in first start

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Yankees right-hander David Phelps had little reason to complain after turning in his first Grapefruit League start of the year on Saturday.

Phelps threw two scoreless innings in New York's 8-3 victory over the Braves, scattering three hits and getting a little help from his defense as the hurler's spring bid for the rotation officially began.

"I was really happy with the way I commanded my fastball," Phelps said. "That was one of the biggest things that I wanted to do, come in today and get ahead of guys with my fastball. I felt we were able to do that today."

Manager Joe Girardi said that he was pleased in Phelps' ability to throw first-pitch strikes. Right fielder Zoilo Almonte helped Phelps out in the first inning, throwing out Atlanta's Reed Johnson at third base on a Freddie Freeman single, and catcher Francisco Cervelli gunned down Todd Cunningham attempting a steal of second base to end the second inning.

"Results are always going to matter to me, but as of right now I'm happy my arm felt good," Phelps said. "I felt my stuff is where it needed to be for right now. I'm really satisfied with the way the ball was coming out. That's one of the biggest things for me, is just the ball is coming out, keeping it down and hitting my spots. That's really important for me."

Phelps was 4-4 with a 3.34 ERA in 33 games (11 starts) as a rookie with New York last season and enters Spring Training projected to fight with Ivan Nova for the fifth slot in the Yankees' rotation.

"I'm not coming into the spring trying to beat somebody out for the spot," Phelps said. "I'm just trying to go out and continue what I was doing last year and have some success, and hopefully build my confidence up and get ready for the season to be ready to pitch in whatever role they ask me to."

Bombers bits

• Yankees right-hander Nick Goody, a sixth-round selection from Louisiana State University in last year's First-Year Player Draft, hobbled into the clubhouse on crutches following a minor traffic accident on Friday. Goody was diagnosed with a sprained right ankle and was sent for an MRI on Saturday.

• Yankees right-hander Phil Hughes continues to feel better after being diagnosed with a bulging disc in his upper back, Girardi said. Hughes has been taking anti-inflammatories and is expected to begin a regimen of underwater agility training at the team's Minor League complex on Sunday.

• Almonte hit the Yankees' first home run of the spring, an opposite-field two-run shot off the Braves' Jordan Walden. Girardi said that he is "excited" about Almonte, a switch-hitting corner outfielder who played last season at Double-A Trenton.

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.