KISSIMMEE, Fla. - While a bunch of aging stars try to get healthy, the New York Yankees have a chance to check out their younger players at spring training.
Zoilo Almonte homered and threw out a runner from right field, Francisco Cervelli began his pitch to win the catching job, and David Phelps threw two scoreless innings as New York defeated the bumbling Atlanta Braves 8-3 in its spring training opener Saturday.
Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira were about the only big names making the trip for the Yankees, with Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia and Mariano Riviera among those still in various stages of rehab.
"I'm never going to say that injuries are a good thing," New York manager Joe Girardi said. "But this will give the kids a chance to grow up a little bit."
Cano also homered for the Yankees, who took advantage of three Atlanta errors and a passed ball. Freddie Freeman bobbled a ground ball at first, new third baseman Chris Johnson missed a popup near home plate, and second baseman Dan Uggla skipped a throw on a routine grounder.
New York broke a scoreless tie in the third with four runs off another Braves newcomer, Jordan Walden, though only one was earned because of two errors. Still, it wasn't as if Walden fooled anyone, surrendering a homer to Almonte on a 1-2 pitch and a double to Eduardo Nunez. The Yankees' fourth run trotted home on a wild pitch by the big right-hander, who took the loss.
The one bright spot for the Braves was Evan Gattis, trying to win a job as a backup catcher and outfielder. He doubled to set up Atlanta's first run, then drove a two-run homer halfway up the left-field berm in the sixth, cutting the Yankees' lead to 5-3.
"It was definitely good to see live pitching again and be in game situations," said Gattis, who quit baseball for several years after high school, bouncing around the county doing odd jobs and pursuing spiritual enlightenment.
New York put it away with a three-run seventh.
Phelps, who went 4-4 with a 3.34 ERA last season, is hoping to claim a spot in the Yankees rotation. He gave up three hits but earned the win, getting a lot of help from his teammates. In the first, Almonte made a perfect throw to get Reed Johnson trying to go from to third on a single. Cervelli ended the next inning by throwing out Todd Cunningham trying to steal second base.
Phelps said the banged-up roster "is good to a certain extent."
"You'll get to see a lot of the younger guys," he said. "Look at what happened last year. We had a lot of young guys, including myself, come up and help the team out. You'll get a chance to see more of the younger guys this spring — find out who they are, how they play and what you can expect out of them."
Cervelli went hitless at the plate but knows his chances of winning a starting job will largely be determined by his skills behind the plate. He's also brought a new attitude to camp, conceding he took it the wrong way when the Yankees demoted him to Triple-A last season.
"My first two or three months in Triple-A were bad. There was a lot of frustration," he said. "But little by little, I realized that things happen for a reason — a positive reason."
His parents played a big part of the turnaround, travelling from their native Venezuela to spend three weeks with their son when he was at his lowest point.
"When your mind is not there, it's hard to put things together," Cervelli recalled. "But my family told me, 'Hey, you came to the States to play baseball. Be a man. Grow up and play some ball.'"
NOTES: Atlanta starter Paul Maholm pitched two hitless innings. The Braves appear to be setting up their rotation to have Kris Medlen start on opening day, followed by Mike Minor, Tim Hudson, Maholm and most likely Julio Teheran, who will start Sunday against the Pirates in Bradenton. ... Adam Warren gets the start in the Yankees' spring home opener Sunday, when they host the Blue Jays in Tampa.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963