Patriots

Hazelbaker 'relieved' after not being taken in Rule 5 draft

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Hazelbaker 'relieved' after not being taken in Rule 5 draft

PAWTUCKET The Rule 5 draft can produce mixed results, for the players taken and the teams involved. Roberto Clemente is perhaps the most surprising name on the list of players that were once Rule 5 draft picks. Recent Red Sox acquisition Shane Victorino is also on the list. Clemente was taken by the Pirates from the Brooklyn Dodgers and went on to a Hall of Fame career that was cut short by a tragic plane crash. Victorino was returned by the Padres to the Dodgers just a few months after he was taken.

Either way, though, it can be an unsettling time if youre a player who is left exposed by a team to the Rule 5 draft. Jeremy Hazelbaker found himself in that position for the first time this year. He was one of several players the Sox chose not to put on their 40-man roster, leaving them available to be taken.

I dont know if surprised is the right word, Hazelbaker said. You hope for something good to happen with the 40-man roster, being put on the 40-man. Everybody hopes for something to happen thats good for them in their baseball career. Thats just something that every minor leaguer thats in that situation hopes for. But you just cant let that affect you. You just have to treat it like its just one more thing in your baseball career that you have to deal with.

I wasnt paying attention to the draft on Thrusday. But, of course, my family was and my agent was telling me what was going on. But, of course, I wanted to know how it turned out. But I wasnt going to sit there and watch it on the computer.

Hazelbaker, 25, the Sox fourth-round pick in 2009 out of Ball State, was not taken.

I guess you could say I was relieved, he said. But it was nice to know where you stood. As a player it was nice to know where I stood and what that meant for me and my career at this point and how to go about the offseason.

Hazelbaker, who was at McCoy Stadium Saturday for Pawtuckets Christmas party, ended last season with the PawSox. In seven games, he hit .267, going 8-for-30, with three RBI and three stolen bases, playing four games in left field and serving as the designated hitter in three. He carried a seven-game hitting streak into the postseason after a 10-game hitting streak before his promotion from Double-A Portland -- as the PawSox won the International League championship for the first time in 28 years. In 114 games with the Sea Dogs, he hit .273 with 19 home runs, 64 RBI, and 33 stolen bases in 44 attempts, a 75 percent success rate. He tied a franchise record with four stolen bases on July 22 at New Hampshire. He also had 10 outfield assists in 80 games eight assists in 65 games in left field, two in 16 games in right.

It was great, Hazelbaker said of his time in Pawtucket. They were making a playoff push, and being able to be one of the players to come up here and help it was great to be a part of that and kind of get my feet wet for next season. And to know I came up here at the time where the best teams are playing, theyre putting their best players out there to be a part of that so you know what to expect for next season.

I cant say one certain thing really as the biggest difference between Double-A and Triple-A but I guess just the caliber of players. You play ex-big leaguers, current big leaguers, guys that are just down here because theres not enough spots on the roster in the big leagues. Theres so many talented guys here and so many guys with big league experience. You just hope to be one of those guys one day where another up-and-coming player looks at you and is like Man, hes played in the big leagues or hes playing in the big leagues. So just being around guys with big league experience.

For the first time, Hazelbaker played winter ball this offseason. Appearing in eight games with Obregon of the Mexican League, he hit .261 (6-for-23) with two home runs, three RBI, and three stolen bases in four attempts.

It was a great experience, he said. Its like a Yankees-Red Sox game every game. Everybodys excited. Everybodys on their feet, cheering, yelling every pitch. It was great to be a part of that.

Hazelbaker will likely start the season with the PawSox. His take on the outfield situation between Boston and Pawtucket?

A lot of guys, he said. A lot of players. We got a lot of money in the outfield right now, a lot of great players, a lot of big leaguers that have been up there for a while that know the game. Its good for me as a young player to be able to see them, to see what they're going to do and hopefully I get a chance to be around them in spring training so I can learn from them. But theres a lot of guys.

Hazelbaker, a native of Indiana, will be in Massachusetts now until spring training, working out at a facility in Hudson. In each of his four seasons with the Sox except 2010 when he spent the whole season with Single-A Greenville hes earned a promotion during the season. Hes hoping to do that again in 2013.

Just to keep performing and do what I did last season the second half of the season, to go up another level, he said of his goals for next season. Ive gone up a level each season and hopefully I can do the same thing next season. I just want to tighten my game up.

Energized Patriots defense forces 'critical swings' with turnovers

Energized Patriots defense forces 'critical swings' with turnovers

“We’re a blue-collar team…”

Devin McCourty didn’t hesitate when asked about the Patriots’ identity. Moments prior, McCourty and his teammates had just stomped the Oakland Raiders in Mexico City, 33-8, to run their win streak to a half-dozen games. The Pats are tied for the best record in the AFC with the Steelers

“We played at a high level,” said McCourty. “They made some plays, but I thought we executed our game plan and did exactly what we wanted to do today.”

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After surrendering a 100-points per game through the first month (ok, it was only 32), the Pats defense has flexed their muscle during this stretch, allowing 12.5 points per game, which would be the best in the NFL were this a season-long thing. We’re not looking at the same unit even though the personnel is largely the same. If anything, from a talent-level, this defense has less skill than it did when the season started. Their best player, Dont'a Hightower, is out for the year, lost during the first win of this 6-game streak. They’ve also survived three-game absences from $31-million cornerback Stephon Gilmore and their most consistent interior defender, tackle Malcom Brown. Yet the defense keeps showing up, keeps improving and its confidence is growing by leaps and bounds.

“We’re just playing together…we’re kind of figuring that out,” said McCourty. “We’re understanding how we need to prepare, how we need to practice, whether it’s a hard, full-padded practice, whether it’s a walkthrough, we know what we need to do on each of those days and when we do that, we give ourselves a chance. You’re seeing that on Sundays. Everyone running around, everyone knows their job and it’s all about execution.”

“I thought our players gave a great effort tonight,” said Bill Belichick. “We came out and performed well early, throughout the game and played really good situational football.”

The Pats were opportunistic, forcing three turnovers, including one in a huge spot, when Marquis Flowers stripped the ball from wideout Seth Roberts as the Raiders were knocking on the door. It was 14-0 at the time, and Oakland had life. Second-year cornerback Jon Jones battled Roberts, Flowers popped the ball free and safety Pat Chung pounced on it. Instead of milking the clock and heading into halftime up two scores, the Pats turned that fumble into points, driving to midfield before Steven Gostkowski kicked a career-long 62 yarder. That further energized a Pats team that was already surging.

“It’s something we talk about every week,” said McCourty. “We’re playing solid defense, executing the game plan, but changing the game with turnovers - you know, even Duron’s interception was a third down so it was kind of like a punt. The energy that brings - when the offense takes the field after we get a turnover - that’s huge. And then with them driving again in the red area before the half is what we talked about, getting that stop.”

“We had some real critical swings with those turnovers,” admired Tom Brady, a chief beneficiary of those change in possessions.

Earlier this week, I asked McCourty if he got a sense that the team was coming together at the tail end of their stay in Colorado Springs. He smiled and joked initially, but you could sense the veteran safety can see and feel what the rest of the league is now a witness to.

“I hope so. I mean, it’d probably be terrible if I say yeah and then we go on a five-game losing streak. I can see the headline: ‘McCourty was wrong.’ So, no, I think we understand how the season starts to pick up. You know, each game means more. We understand that seven wins (now 8) doesn’t mean anything. We have to continue to get better. So, I think why we end up usually improving is because it’s the understanding of there’s no tomorrow.”

The defense ordered that Code Red after losing to Carolina in Week 4, and since then, they have worked harder, worked longer and cleaned up so many of the issues that ailed them that opening month. It’s a credit to the players, “they won’ the game tonight,” said Belichick, and the coaching staff as well. if you’ve followed this team over the years, you know even now, they’re not satisfied. There are “things to work on” added Belichick and they’ll start that work on the flight home from Mexico City to Foxboro. 

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No doubter: Gostkowski knew he wouldn't be short on record-setting kick

No doubter: Gostkowski knew he wouldn't be short on record-setting kick

The Raiders gave Stephen Gostkowski plenty of time to think about the 62-yard kick he was about to line up when they called a timeout just before the end of the first half. Didn't matter. Gostkowski returned to his spot, watched a good snap turn into a good hold, which turned into a Patriots record.

It was the longest field goal in Patriots history, making it the longest in Stephen Gostkowski's career as he bested his previous record of 58 yards set earlier this season. It was also the perfect exclamation point to a perfect day for Gostkowski, who went four-for-four on field goals and three-for-three on extra points in his team's 33-8 win over the Raiders in Mexico City. 

When asked about the half-ending kick, Gostkowski credited his teammates for putting him in position to kick it. They got from their own seven-yard line with 33 seconds left to the Raiders 45-yard line with five seconds remaining. A 20-yard run by Dion Lewis and completions to Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski did the trick. 

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"I think every time I kick a long kick, it's Gronk who makes the catch right beforehand," Gostkowski told reporters. "It's a nice little polish connection. It was cool. You can wait your whole career and not get a kick like that. It's a very opportunistic job. You're only as good as the opportunities you get. I got a good opportunity, and I'm glad I took advantage of it."

The longest kick Gostkowski tried in warmups was from 60 yards away but he had no concerns about trying to make something longer. Having kicked at altitude all week at the Air Force Academy, he knew his range would be better than it usually is. 

"I don't usually go past 60 in warmups," he said. "I hit one and I made it by a good bit. I knew that coming up short -- if I hit it good -- probably wasn't going to happen. Warm weather, altitude, the ball is going to fly. I just tried to concentrate on getting a good foot on it , making sure it stayed straight enough. Got the opportunity, took advantage of it. It's exciting for the whole team."

Gostkowski also used the extra oomph he had in Mexico City to boot six of his seven kickoffs for touchbacks, keeping the NFL's leading return man Cordarrelle Patterson (30.8 yards per return) from burning the Patriots in that phase.

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