Ninkovich not to be held down

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Ninkovich not to be held down

FOXBORO -- Rob Ninkovich has been hurt before.
He appeared in just three games his rookie year, as a member of the Saints in 2006, before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Other knee issues have come, slowed him down, and mercifully gone.
At least the pain provides perspective.
Two weeks ago Ninkovich suffered a hip injury in New England's season finale against the Dolphins. The defensive end went down hard in the second quarter. He couldn't walk on his own.
As Ninkovich was helped to the sideline, each arm draped over the shoulders of a team trainer, the situation looked grim.
The Patriots were gearing up for a playoff run. Would they have to do it without their starting left end? Would Ninkovich be denied his chance at postseason redemption after last year's Super Bowl loss?
"I've had a couple of injuries that, when it happens you think it could be your career," he shrugged Sunday. "Actually, this last time it's happened to me a few times, unfortunately, so I was a little bit better taking it and saying, 'Calm down. Don't get too upset. You don't know what it is yet.'
"I was happy that it wasn't affect me going forward in the playoffs."
Not only was he active for Sunday's Divisional Playoff, he resumed his starting role. Patriots defensive captain Vince Wilfork said after the game, a 41-28 win over Houston, how much it meant to have Ninkovich out there.
"He's a tough player. He's a great, great player. He's a student of the game. He loves to play. The passion that he has for the game anything you want in a teammate, that's what he brings to the table. His leadership -- he's kind of behind the scenes -- but he's a great leader on and off the field."
Head coach Bill Belichick added, "Hes had a great season. His production is right up there at the very top of the league at his position. Hes made big plays for us in the past sacks, strips, fumbles, recovered fumbles, tackles for loss, all that. We know hes got good hands."
Unfortunately for Houston, his hands were particularly excellent on Sunday.
The Texans faced third-and-8 on New England's 37 in the third quarter. Quarterback Matt Schaub got into shotgun. Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo saw something from Houston and communicated it to Ninkovich, who dropped into coverage.
Schaub thought he had fullback James Casey working over the middle. Instead, he threw a ball into the arms of a leaping Ninkovich.
Picked.
"Hes had many interceptions before; made a great play there," Belichick noted. "We blitzed from the outside, he dropped down inside, got underneath the route and really made a great catch on the ball. It was high, tough catch but Robs a good athlete. He makes it look easy; he catches the ball well."
The interception grew greater as New England turned it into points.
Ninkovich was downed at his own 37. The Patriots offense went the rest of the way on six plays executed in less than three minutes. The score put them up 31-13 and put Houston back on its heels.
"He's a special player for us and it shows," said Wilfork. "He makes plays after plays because he puts the time in and works his tail off. We see a lot of plays being made in practice, so we expect it; they don't come by surprise to us because we know what type of player this guy is."
His teammates laud him for being a workhorse of a player. This week, Ninkovich was just grateful to play, period.
"I felt pretty good tonight. This week I'm going to get even better. I'm happy I'll be able to go out there and give 100-percent."

Three things we learned from the Red Sox' 2-1 loss to the Twins

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Three things we learned from the Red Sox' 2-1 loss to the Twins

Three Things we learned from the Boston Red Sox' 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins:

1) It only seems like David Ortiz can come through every time.

When Ortiz comes to the plate as he did Friday night -- bases loaded, no out, bottom of the ninth, Red Sox trailing by a run -- it seems like a win is a fait accompli.

"I think everybody in the ballpark just assumed this one might have a chance to be ended right there,'' said John Farrell. "He's been so big for us that everybody in the dugout felt the same way -- confident that the stage was set for him to come through with another dramatic moment.''

Instead, Ortiz rolled over a ground ball to second, and with the Twins infield drawn in, it was enough to turn a 4-2-3 double play that took the starch out of the inning for the Sox.

If anything, though, the inning revealed how remarkable Ortiz has been so often. It's not easy to come through even most times, and it's certainly far from automatic.

"The pitcher (closer Brandon Kintzler) made good pitches,'' said Ortiz. "That's the name of the game. I'm always looking forward to something happening. It just doesn't work out all the time.''

2) Eduardo Rodriguez has his slider back.

When Rodriguez endured a rough stretch in late May and June, he seemed to all but abandon his slider, relying almost exclusively on his two-seam fastball and changeup.

But since returning from a stint in Pawtucket, Rodriguez has flashed the slider that made him so effective as a rookie last season.

"Since he's come back,'' said Farrell, "he's added much more depth. He's able to get to the back foot of some righthanders for some swing-and-miss. He was on the plate with three quality pitches for strikes tonight.''

"I feel like I can locate it better, where I want it,'' confirmed Rodriguez. "Outside, inside corner...I'm getting more confident in it. I think I got out of my mind the tipping (pitches) stuff and all that stuff and I'm just working to throw the ball right where I want it.''

It's almost impossible for a starter in the big leagues to survive with just two pitches, as Rodriguez was attempting to do earlier this season. And it seems foolish to even try, given that Rodriguez's slider can be a plus-pitch for him at times.

3) If Mookie Betts has to miss some time, the Red Sox have options in right field.

Farrell said Betts has been dealing with soreness and stiffness in his right knee since after the All-Star break and has been undergoing treatment.

There's no evidence that this is serious, and he's considered day-to-day. But even if Betts needs some time off, or in a worse-case scenario, has to go on the DL, the Sox can do some things with their outfield.

Michael Martinez's best outfield position is right, as he demonstrated Friday night after taking over for Betts in the top of the fifth. Martinez ran a long way to grab a ball in foul territory for the final out in the sixth, then turned in a fine, tumbling catch in the eighth to take extra bases away from Adam Grossman.

Bryce Brentz, who's been in a platoon of sorts in left with Brock Holt, has played a lot of right field in the minors and has the arm strength to play there.

Finally, there's the matter of Andrew Benintendi. The Sox raised some eyebrows with the news that they were having Benintendi move over to left field at Double A Portland, perhaps in anticipation of playing the position for Boston at some point later this year.

Benintendi is a natural center fielder and even though he doesn't much experience in right, if you're athletic enough to play center, you can usually move to either corner spot.

Quotes, Notes and Stars from the Red Sox' 2-1 loss to the Twins

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Quotes, Notes and Stars from the Red Sox' 2-1 loss to the Twins

Quotes, Notes and Stars from the Boston Red Sox' 2-1 loss to the Minnesota Twins:

QUOTES:

"I think everybody in the ballpark just assumed this one had a chance to be ended right there.'' - John Farrell on David Ortiz's at-bat with no out and the bases loaded in the ninth inning.

"I feel like I can locate it better - outside, inside corner -- so it's given me more confidence.'' - Eduardo Rodriguez on the improvement with his slider.

"I always look forward to something (good) happening; it just doesn't work out all the time.'' - David Ortiz on his ninth-inning at-bat.

NOTES:

* The Red Sox saw a seven-game winning streak at Fenway -- their longest of the season -- snapped.

* Boston has homered in 13 consecutive games.

* The Red Sox bullpen has posted a 1.17 ERA since July 6.

* Mookie Betts became the first Red Sox hitter to hit 20 homers in a season before he turns 24 since Nomar Garciaparra.

* Dustin Pedroia has reached base in 30 straight games.

* The eight strikeouts posted by Eduardo Rodriguez were a season high and one shy of his career high.

* The loss was only the 15th this season in games in which the Red Sox score first.

* Rodriguez has not allowed an opposing baserunner to steal a base since July 5, 2015.

STARS:

1) Kyle Gibson

Don't let the 5.12 ERA he had coming in fool you. Gibson worked out a little jam in the first, then completely shut the Red Sox down the rest of the way, allowing just one hit and one walk after the first.

2) Brian Dozier

Dozier homered in the second to tie the game, singled in the fourth, walked in the sixth and singled again in the eighth -- reaching base in all four plate appearances.

3) Miguel Sano

Sano invited trouble when he dropped a routine pop-up to allow the Red Sox to put the potential tying run on base in the eighth. But he had three base hits on the night, including a run-scoring double that put the Twins ahead to stay in the sixth.

Sean McAdam can be followed on Twitter: @Sean_McAdam