Welker: Toughness, smarts make up for size

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Welker: Toughness, smarts make up for size

FOXBORO -- Wes Welker looked like hell. He looked like a guy who, over the course of a five-month football season, caught 118 passes and took just as many hits.

After Thursday's practice he walked to a podium for his media-access period wearing flip flops and sporting a black eye that had already turned various shades of purple, yellow and red. He didn't know exactly how he earned that particular badge of courage, just that it was a result of one of the many shots he absorbed during last week's Divisional Round win over the Texans, 41-28.

As the Patriots prepare for the AFC Championship Game against the Ravens, there has been talk of toughness, usually in reference to the Ravens. Their veteran linebacker and emotional leader Ray Lewis returned from a torn triceps to play in this year's playoffs. Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs returned from a torn achilles this season less than a year after shredding it. As a team, the Ravens like to hit hard. Born out of the mold of the traditionally-rugged AFC North, they're bonafide tough.

But an argument could be made that the toughest individual player on the field Sunday will be New England's 5-foot-9, 190-pound slot receiver. Welker has made a career over the middle of the field, braving hits from linebackers and safeties. And since punt returner Julian Edelman was lost for the season to injury, Welker has taken that job and put himself in position to take a few more crunching blows every game.

The baffling question is not why, but how? How has Welker, at his size, remained so consistent -- earlier this year he became the first ever receiver to notch 100 receptions in five straight seasons -- in a role that is so punishing?

"I think the two key things are being tough and being smart," Welker said. "Being able to take those hits and do all those things, and at the same time, being smart and understanding what the defense is doing and being able to attack it in a certain way where you can maybe make those windows just a little bit bigger where you're not taking those hits and things like that. I would attribute being tough and being smart, and really understanding the game."

Welker is a master of deflecting head-on shots. As a punt returner, it's a skill that stands out. Rarely does he take a heavy hit as he starts up field with no momentum while opponents come barreling down on him at full speed. A subtle dip of his shoulder. A twist of just a few degrees. Sometimes that's all it takes. That's the difference between staying on the field for that subsequent offensive series and some other, more painful result.

His team is concerned about him. They need him, especially now with tight end Rob Gronkowski -- the team's much larger middle-of-the-field target -- sidelined for the remainder of the playoffs with a broken arm.

Welker said on Thursday that he's spoken with coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady about how to avoid big hits.

"It's a long season," Welker said. "Every little hit, it adds up. There are times where you gotta know when the ride's over and get down and live to see another day and things like that. So we've discussed it before, but at the same time, when you need a first down or whatever, you gotta do what you gotta do."

That's the rub. Welker has become one of the NFL's best receivers because of his toughness. Coming out of high school, he was too small for Division 1 football. He went on to star at the Division 1 program at Texas Tech. Then he was too small for the NFL. Now he's the most reliable and productive option in one of the most prolific offenses of all time.

He's hard-wired to try. Knowing when the ride is over isn't his strong suit. But he knows enough to pick his spots.

"You learn," he said with a smile.

But even when Welker chooses wrong, he pops back up. Playing tough is who he is. He knows it's not achieved by talking or trying to intimidate, which the Ravens have been known to do at times here at Gillette Stadium. It's something else.

"There's guys that talk trash," Welker said. "There's guys that try to hit you and do all these different things, but I feel like I've been around long enough to know a tough guy when I see one."

Quotes, notes and stars: Ziegler stumbles in Red Sox' 4-3 loss

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Quotes, notes and stars: Ziegler stumbles in Red Sox' 4-3 loss

BOSTON -- Quotes, Notes and Stars from the Red Sox' 4-3 loss to the Tigers on Wednesday.

QUOTES

"For maybe the first time when he hasn't put the ball on the ground consistently, that's the one spot that shows up here today.''
-- John Farrell on Brad Ziegler, who gave up the game-winning homer to Miguel Cabrera in the ninth inning.

"Unfortunately, we're one-swing-of-the-bat difference here today.''
-- Farrell

"It wasn't a horrible pitch; it just wasn't a great one either.''
-- Zieger on the pitch to Cabrera.

"Shoot, I've got to be honest. I haven't even looked at the schedule. I know there's 162 [games] on there. That's about all I know.''
-- Dustin Pedroia, when asked about the team's upcoming string of road games.

NOTES

-- The Red Sox dropped to 11-14 against teams from the American League Central.

-- The series sweep was the first of the season suffered by the Red Sox. Every other MLB team had already been swept more than once.

-- Pedroia has reached base safely in 30 straight games. It's the second-longest streak of his career.

-- Xander Bogaerts hit safely in every game on the homestand, batting .447 in that span.

-- Seven of Sandy Leon's 10 doubles this season have come in day games.

-- Aaron Hill collected his first extra-base hit (double) as a member of the Red Sox.

-- Victor Martinez reached base in all five plate appearances, becoming the first Tiger to do so at Fenway since Pudge Rodriguez in 2008.

-- The Tigers are 7-2 in their last nine Fenway games.

-- Opposing hitters had been just 1-for-22 against Brad Ziegler as a member of the Red Sox before Cabrera's homer.

STARS
 

1) Miguel Cabrera -- He was 3-for-4 with an intentional walk, including the game-winning homer in the top of the ninth.

2) Victor Martinez -- He remains one of the game's best pure hitters, which he demonstrated with four hits and two RBI.

3) Michael Fulmer -- He continued his Rookie of the Year case with 7 2/3 strong innings, allowing three runs on seven hits.

Bergeron and Marchand convinced Backes to join Bruins

Bergeron and Marchand convinced Backes to join Bruins

JAMAICA PLAIN -- For those excited about the idea of an intense, hard-hitting David Backes in a Bruins uniform for the next five years, you have Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand to partially thank.

Backes, 32, didn’t know either of them all that well prior to this summer, aside from his experiences on ice against them. But Bergeron and Marchand called Backes multiple times while recruiting him to Boston, and it was a major factor in the former Blues captain signing a five-year, $30 million deal with the B's.

“Being an outsider, we need to have a little bit of confession here that Marchand is the kind of guy that gets under everybody’s skin. I was no different,” said the 6-foot-3, 221-pound Backes, who has 206 goals and 460 points in 727 career NHL games, all with St. Louis. “But then talking to him a little bit in the interview process prior to July 1, I hung up the phone and had to take a deep breath and say to myself, ‘That little disturber, he’s actually a pretty good guy.’ Those guys end up being the best teammates.

“A guy like Bergeron, when you play against him [he's] always in the right spot, and is never making mistakes. Those types of guys, again, are guys you want on your team, and guys you want to go to war with. They’re All-World players, Bergeron is an All-World player. But he’s also a down-to-earth guy that puts his work boots on, takes his lunch pail and plays his butt off. He’s nice to the young kids, and he’s nurturing in helping them come along. I think you’ve seen in the NHL that you need a few guys on entry-level deals, or a few guys to outperform their contracts, in order to have success in the salary-cap era. That nurturing and mentorship can really foster those kinds of performances.”

While Backes went on to mention Zdeno Chara as another highly respected, formidable opponent with whom he’ll now share a dressing room, it was interesting to note that players who currently have letters on their sweaters, like Chara and David Krejci, didn’t play a part in the recruiting process. Instead it was the next captain of the team (Bergeron) and a player (Marchand) currently in the middle of negotiations entering the last year of his contract.

“I talked to both Bergeron and Marchand twice before July 1," said Backes. "Just the way that they spoke about their team mentality, and teaming up together and sharing the load of hard minutes that need to be played, and also sharing the load of the offensive necessities that a team has . . . those things just rang true to my beliefs of a team.

“You’re all equals whether you’re the top-paid guy, or the top-minute guy, or the low-minute guy, or the guy that’s playing every other game because you’re the healthy scratch in the other games.

“We all needed to be treated equal, and do whatever we can to support the next guy. When the next guy has success, we have to be just as happy as if we scored the goal. That’s the type of thing where, when you get that from the full 20 guys on the ice, it’s so tough to be beat. Those are the teams that win championships.”

It will be interesting to see just how much involvement Backes has with the Bergeron and Marchand combination. He could very easily be a right-wing fit with those two dynamic forwards next season, or he could be a third-line center behind Bergeron and Krejci and give the Bruins elite depth down the middle of the ice.

True to his team-oriented nature, Backes said he’ll be happy to play at either position and do whatever Claude Julien feels is best.

First impressions: Detroit Tigers 4, Boston Red Sox 3

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First impressions: Detroit Tigers 4, Boston Red Sox 3

BOSTON -- First impressions from the Red Sox' 4-3 loss to Detroit on Wednesday afternoon:

1) Eduardo Rodriguez pitched pretty well, but not well -- or deep -- enough.

Rodriguez has now made three starts since coming back from Pawtucket and any one of them was better than his starts from earlier this year.

He's no longer tipping his pitches, he's commanding better in general and his fastball has been more powerful.

But he's also giving up a lot of hits (19 in 18 innings) and he's gotten through the sixth inning just once in his three outings. For a team short in its bullpen, that's leaving a big workload for the relievers.

2) The late-inning comebacks have been in short supply.

Yes,  the Red Sox have scored runs by the boatload at times. And yes, they've mostly played hard this season.

But before Wednesday, the Sox had been just 3-35 when trailing after seven innings and they had enjoyed only two walkoff wins all season.

Those numbers can be misleading, of course. Teams can dig out from early holes -- as the Red Sox did Tuesday night.

But the ninth-inning rallies haven't happened much. In fact, on the current home stand, the Sox have had the top-to-middle part of the order up in the bottom of the ninth -- with David Ortiz getting an at-bat each time -- on four separate occasions, trailing by a run or two, and couldn't produce a winning rally.

3) Clay Buchholz may be pitching himself out of the doghouse

After going weeks -- literally --between appearances, Buchholz has been called upon four times in the last seven games.

Granted, in most of those games, the Red Sox have been trailing. But the games were such that they were still within reach, contradicting John Farrell's remarks late last week when he broadly hinted that he didn't trust Buchholz in games that were close.

Slowly, however, Buchholz could be earning some trust coming out of the bullpen. He had a perfect inning Wednesday with the Sox trailing by a run at the time.