September 2011

Yanks clinch 50th postseason appearance

The Yankees are on their way to postseason play for the 50th time in franchise history, including the 16th time in the past 17 years. And yet the mission is not over. The Yankees still had another game to play Wednesday night after beating the Rays in the afternoon in a quest for the division title. One more victory combined with a Red Sox loss would make the Yankees champions of the American League East for the 18th time since divisional play began in 1969.

The Yanks qualified for the playoffs in dramatic fashion with a 4-2 victory on the strength of a three-run rally against James Shields, who was trying for his 12th complete game, in the eighth inning. Shields, who threw 120 pitches, was on fumes when Eduardo Nunez opened the inning with game-tying home run to left.

Shields then gave up a single to Brett Gardner and walked Derek Jeter, prompting the exit Rays manager Joe Maddon had hoped to avoid. Robinson Cano knocked over the table by driving a 3-1 slider from lefthander J.P. Howell over center fielder B.J. Upton for a two-run double that was another example of why the All-Star second baseman who was mostly a designated hitter in this game is still a viable Most Valuable Player Award candidate.

In fact, after the game, Yankees manager Joe Girardi was asked whether Cano or center fielder Curtis Granderson was the team’s MVP. He adroitly avoided the question by saying, “Maybe we can have a tie for MVP.”

Girardi had a good day as well, coaxing a game out of the bullpen with eight relievers doing the job in place of Phil Hughes, who was scratched from his scheduled start due to persistent back spasms that led to his undergoing an MRI exam that revealed inflammation from a herniated disk the righthander sustained in 2004. Hughes received an epidural and won’t be able to pitch before Sunday at the earliest.

Hector Noesi made his first big-league start, followed by a procession of relieves that included Raul Valdes, George Kontos, Aaron Laffey, Cory Wade, Boone Logan, Luis Ayala and the inimitable Mariano Rivera (44th save, career No. 603), who combined for 6 1/3 shutout innings.

For the Rays, who left 10 runners on base and had 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position, the loss was a crushing blow to their hopes of catching the Red Sox in the wild card scrum. Red Sox Nation won’t like this, but it may have to thank the Yankees if Boston joins them in the playoffs.

Hughes has to ‘back’ out of start

Back spasms that first affected Phil Hughes during a throwing session at Toronto last weekend prevented the righthander from making his scheduled start Wednesday in the afternoon portion of a split-admission doubleheader against the Rays at Yankee Stadium.

The situation resulted in Hector Noesi making his first major-league start after 28 relief outings. Yankees manager Joe Girardi said he didn’t expect to get more than 50 or 60 pitches from Noesi, who got into that area by the third inning. Desmond Jennings belted Noesi’s 48th pitch to left-center for a two-run home run that wiped out a 1-0 Yankees lead.

With rosters expanded this month, Girardi does have plenty of arms in the bullpen to get through the day game with workhorse CC Sabathia set to pitch the nightcap. The only problem that might face the Yankees is the weather. Rain is in the forecast, particularly Wednesday night.

Raul Valdes, who was impressive in his first appearance for the Yankees Sunday at Toronto, took over for Noesi in the third in what was becoming in manager’s parlance a bullpen game.

The Yankees would clinch a playoff berth with a victory in the afternoon, but there likely would not be much of a celebration – no champagne, certainly – because they must play another game.

The Rays began play still two games behind the Red Sox in the wild card standings. They lost an opportunity to gain ground Tuesday in getting shut out by the Yankees while Boston lost at home to the Orioles.

Granderson, Nova back in awards chase

The Curtis Granderson campaign for the American League Most Valuable Player Award stalled somewhat this month. There has been much talk recently about Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander making a bid to become the first starter in 25 years to win the award. What may help Verlander is that his competition may offset each other because four of them are teammates.

The Red Sox’ recent fade has dampened the once very strong chances for Adrian Gonzalez and Jacoby Ellsbury. Similarly, a soft September by Granderson combined with the solid second half by Robinson Cano had the two Yankees perhaps taking votes away from each other.

Despite his impressive totals of runs, runs batted in and home runs, two items have made Granderson’s MVP path bumpy – a low batting average and a high strikeout total. Curtis this month broke the franchise record for strikeouts that had belonged to Alfonso Soriano, and the center fielder’s average has been stuck in the .260s.

While I know that batting average is not as revered a statistic as it once was, it is nevertheless among the ways to gauge a player’s value. Only twice has a position player won the MVP Award with a batting average below .270. The lowest average was the .267 of Cardinals shortstop Marty Marion in 1944, a year when rosters were decimated by World War II service. The lowest for an AL player was the Yankees’ Roger Maris, who hit .269 in 1961 when he won the award for the second straight year, mainly for his then record-setting 61 home runs.

Granderson’s average had fallen to .264 Sept. 16, although he has stepped it up since then and is up to .271 after a 3-for-5 showing in Monday night’s 5-0 victory over the Rays. Over the past three games, Granderson has seven hits in 12 at-bats (.583) with 4 doubles, 1 home run, 7 RBI and 5 runs, which has strengthened his candidacy.

The Yankees caught a big break in the second inning when Brett Gardner was called safe at first base on a bunt play that filled the bases. The Yanks already had a run in that inning against Rays starter Wade Davis on a leadoff double by Nick Swisher and a single by Eric Chavez.

After Russell Martin singled, Gardner dropped a bunt to the right side. Casey Kotchman, one of the game’s top first baseman, pounced on the ball and threw to second baseman Sean Rodriguez, who was a bit late covering first base. First base umpire Scott Barry called Gardner safe on the bang-bang play, although video replays clearly showed that Rodriguez caught the throw before Brett hit the bag.

That’s all right. The Yankees have had plenty of calls go against them. One out later, Granderson cleared the bases with the first of two doubles in the game. In the fifth inning, he picked up his fourth RBI of the game in raising his league-leading total to 119. Curtis has a wide lead in runs scored, and his 41 home runs are topped only by the 42 of Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista.

Speaking of awards campaigns, there is also that of Ivan Nova for the Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year trophy. The righthander was accorded a standing ovation from the sellout crowd of 46,944 at Yankee Stadium as he came out of the game after 7 2/3 shutout innings in lowering his ERA to 3.62.

Nova improved his season record to 16-4 with his 12th consecutive victory, which tied the team record for rookies that was set by Russ Ford in 1912, the last year that the franchise was known as the Highlanders, and equaled in 1939 by Atley Donald.

Nova was particularly impressive in the seventh after the Rays loaded the bases on a single, a hit batter and a walk with none out by getting out of the jam retiring Desmond Jennings on a fly to shallow left and B.J. Upton on an around-the-horn double play. Tampa Bay was 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position against Nova.

The Yankees didn’t exactly stand out in that category, either. They had a multitude of scoring chances but were only 5-for-20 (.250) in those settings and left a season-high 18 runners on base – in eight innings yet. As it turned out, they had more than enough support for Nova. Too bad he spent most of July in the minors or Nova might be a runaway winner as the league’s top rookie.

Among the Yankees’ 14 hits were two singles by Derek Jeter, who passed Hall of Famer Cap Anson into 19th place on the all-time list with 3,082 career hits. No. 18 on the list with 3,110 is Jeter’s favorite player growing up, Hall of Famer Dave Winfield.

Red Sox Nation joins Yankees Universe

Who would have thought it would ever come to this? Throughout New England, Red Sox fans are rooting for the Yankees.

Huh?

True. The franchise that once felt cursed for having sold Babe Ruth’s contract to the Yankees is watching its fan base root for them in this week’s series against the Rays. Tampa Bay had closed to two games behind Boston – one in the loss column – in the wild card race. The Rays are at Yankee Stadium for a four-game set that began Tuesday night and will continue with a split-admission doubleheader Wednesday and a rainout makeup game Thursday night.

And Red Sox Nation will be cheering on the Yankees all the way.

Say cheese

Picture Day finally came to Yankee Stadium late Tuesday afternoon about 4 ½ hours before the game between the Yankees and the Rays. It is a busy assignment for the Yankees Magazine staff because they need to collect as many photos as they can for off-season issues when most of the players are not available.

There was very little of the normal clowning that often takes place when team photos are taken. The ones during spring training are especially goofy. With the regular season winding down and postseason looming, the Yankees have their games faces on for the most part.

As usual, there are always some no-shows, although the only Yankees regular not in the photo is Ivan Nova, who as Tuesday night’s starting pitcher was not required to come to the park early. He will no doubt put up with some grief from his teammates and likely a fine from the Kangaroo Court supervised by Mariano Rivera.

The other players who did not get into the picture were all injured. Relievers Joba Chamberlain, Pedro Feliciano and Damaso Marte were among the missing. So, too, was backup catcher Francisco Cervelli, who is home recovering from post-concussion syndrome and may not make the postseason roster.

The postponement of the team picture from Sept. 6 to Tuesday was a break for Austin Romine, one of two rookie catchers, along with Jesus Montero, who may replace Cervelli on the postseason roster. The team photo session had to be postponed Sept. 6 because of wet grounds. That was the night that the start of the game was delayed for more than four hours and did not begin until 11:08 p.m., by orders of Major League Baseball.

While Montero was called up from Triple A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre by the Yankees Aug. 31 and was at the Stadium for the original photo session Sept. 6, Romine was still in the minors and had just been transferred from the Double A Trenton roster to SWB. After Cervelli’s injury Sept. 8 at Baltimore, the Yankees brought up Romine, who joined the team in Anaheim and made his big-league debut Sept. 11 against the Angels. That put Austin in position to make his first appearance in a Yankees team photo.

Fans wanted the game to go to Mo

Be honest, Yankees fans. Weren’t you rooting against them in the bottom of the eighth inning Monday?

A lot of people in the Yankee Stadium crowd of 40,045 were cheering with each out and let up a roar when Nick Swisher grounded into a double play. They had their eye on the bullpen where Mariano Rivera was getting ready to come into the game to the familiar sounds of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman.”

The Yankees were ahead, 6-4. If they scored two or more runs, Rivera would have lost the save situation. They had two runners on base in the eighth. If Swisher had put one in the seats, Mo would have had to sit down, and who know how loudly Swish would have booed as he rounded the bases.

The weird thing is that Rivera could never root against his own team. Winning games matters more to him than anything. The more runs the Yankees score the more he likes it. Yet even he understood why everybody was so excited on a day that when a game was not supposed to be played at the Stadium.

Rivera came through and gave those who attended Monday’s rainout makeup game against the Twins a slice of history. With his usual efficiency, Rivera pitched a 1-2-3 ninth inning finishing it off with a called third strike with his patented cutter to Minnesota rookie first baseman Chris Parmelee for his 602nd career save.

That makes it official. Rivera is the greatest relief pitcher of all time, which we already knew. He surpassed Trevor Hoffman in career saves that removes any doubts. Not included in that number are the 42 additional saves Rivera has chalked up in postseason play, 42 and counting, just as he has 602 regular-season saves and counting. There are 10 games left on the Yanks’ schedule, and they are going to postseason play again, giving Rivera plenty of opportunities to add to his totals.

You could tell Mo really liked this one. As cool as he was after saves Nos. 600 and 601, this one was different. He could not hide his joy. His wide, toothy smile that he reserves for teammates when they do something special, like when Derek Jeter got his 3,000th hit July 9, was evident as he stood on the mound and accepted congratulations from Jeter, catcher Russell Martin, his long-time previous catcher Jorge Posada, manager Joe Girardi, trainer Gene Monahan and the rest of the Yankees.

Posada told Mo to go back on the mount to acknowledge the cheers of the fans who were clearly rooting for this important Yankee at that point. His wife and sons were in the crowd as well for this big day for their family.

“It felt strange,” Rivera said. “Nobody in front of me, nobody behind me; I never had that before.”

I was thinking Monday about the first time I became aware of Rivera. It was 1993. I was sitting in the Stadium office of then manager Buck Showalter. The Yankees weren’t very good in those days, so you spent more time looking at what was going on down in the minors. Mark Connor, then the Yankees pitching coach, showed me a statistics sheet with Rivera’s figures at Class A Greensboro underlined.

“Keep your eye on this kid,” Mark said. “He’s going to have to put on some weight, but all he does is throw strikes, and he’s coming off elbow surgery.”

From that point on, I regularly checked Rivera’s record when he was in the minors. He showed signs of what was to come with outstanding relief work in the American League Division Series against the Mariners in 1995. The next season, he was a legitimate AL Most Valuable Player candidate for his setup work for closer John Wetteland. Mo finished 12th in the voting, which was the highest ranking of any Yankees player that year, the first time in MVP voting history that a championship team did not have a player finish in the top 10.

I remember a player coming up to me the day after Rivera blew that save in Game 4 of the 1997 ALDS at Cleveland on the eighth-inning home run by Sandy Alomar Jr. Rivera had been calm after the game, reiterating that he would have thrown the same pitch but with different location.

“Wasn’t the closer a little too blasé about what happened yesterday?” the player asked me. “Some of the guys commented on that last night.”

The following spring, I mentioned to Goose Gossage what the player had said about Rivera.

“Whoever that guy was doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Goose said. “That is exactly the attitude a closer has to have. Don’t second-guess yourself and move on to the next game.”

Rivera has done that over and over. I was on the official scoring crew for the 1999 World Series and was on the committee that voted for the MVP, which was Rivera. Mo came over to me during spring training the next season and said, “I was told you were one of the World Series MVP voters,” he said. “I wanted to thank you for your support.”

Rivera has been saying all season that 602 is merely a number and that it won’t change him. Good. It would be unfathomable for Mariano Rivera to be anything but what he is, baseball’s ultimate class act.

Mo will go for save No. 602 in final homestand

The Yankees wheezed their way to the end of a 4-city, 11-day, 10-game trip through Baltimore, Anaheim, Seattle and Toronto and were lifeless in Sunday’s 3-0 loss to the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. The Yanks were 4-6 on the arduous trip with four walk-off losses but had a couple of highlights with Mariano Rivera earning career saves Nos. 600 and 601 to tie Trevor Hoffman’s major-league record.

Mo can try to make the record his own at Yankee Stadium where the Yankees will play eight games over the next seven days on the last regular-season homestand of the season. To say it will be good to get home is a major understatement.

With the Rays continuing to encroach on the Red Sox’ lead in the wild-card race and pushing Boston 4 ½ games behind the Yankees in the American League East, manager Joe Girardi had the opportunity to rest some players Sunday, which he did by giving three regulars the day off. Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira weren’t even used in pinch-hit situations as the Yankees went down meekly to Brandon Morrow, who pitched eighth brilliant innings, and Frank Francisco, who worked the ninth for his 16th save.

Against Morrow, the Yankees scratched out only four hits – three of them in the infield – and a walk while striking out eight times. Eduardo Nunez, who played second base as Robinson Cano was the designated hitter, had three hits, including a double off Francisco in the ninth, but was thrown out on the bases trying to stretch his second hit into a double. Nunez was the only one of the Yankees to get to second base, which he did twice.

Freddy Garcia had his third straight poor outing and was undone by two home runs from Adam Lind, who had a monster series (6-for-12, 2 doubles, 2 home runs, 5 RBI, 3 runs). Garcia did not get through the fifth inning. He has allowed 15 earned runs and 21 hits, including six homers, in 12 1/3 innings (10.95 ERA) over his past three starts in which his season ERA has swollen from 3.09 to 3.77.

Garcia’s early exit allowed Girardi the chances to see some relievers who are auditioning for postseason roster spots. The most impressive was lefthander Raul Valdes, who began the year with the Cardinals and was claimed off waivers by the Yankees Aug. 16 and pitched at Double A Trenton. He entered the game in the sixth with one out, the bases full and Lind at bat. Valdes got him looking at a third strike and retired Edwin Encarnacion on a ground ball to end the threat. It was one bright spot in a gloomy day for the Yankees.

Splendid setting for Mo’s 601st save

What a terrific game to be the one in which Mariano Rivera tied the career record for saves. After four innings, it would have been hard to predict that Mo would even get into the game because the Yankees appeared buried as they trailed, 6-1, behind a shaky Bartolo Colon, who was scorched for six earned runs and seven hits.

Considering the state of the Yankees’ offense on this trip, a comeback seemed unlikely. The Yankees entered Saturday’s game at Toronto batting .200 in 265 at-bats and averaging 3.5 runs per game on the trip in which they had lost five of eight games. But after the roaring comeback sparked by the power of Alex Rodriguez and Curtis Granderson and supplemented by the hitless work of five relievers, the Yankees have a chance to play .500 on a ragged trip that ends Sunday.

Rivera’s wife Clara and sons Mariano Jr., Jafet and Jaziel were in the crowd of 39,288 at Rogers Centre cheering him on as he bore down for his 42nd save of the season with a 1-2-3 ninth that brought his career total to 601, tying him with Trevor Hoffman for the all-time record. One more save, perhaps Sunday or even better when the team returns to Yankee Stadium Monday, and Mo will have no rivals as baseball’s saves master.

Rivera is already acknowledged as the game’s greatest closer. That saves total does not include the 42 he has recorded in postseason play, which is at the core of his legacy. Watching him after the last out as he walked off the mound and toward the center fielder, Granderson, who put away the 27th out and hit a home run that gave the Yankees the lead, gave one a glance at a professional in action, the game’s classiest act.

Later in talking to reporters, Rivera spoke more about the comeback his teammates staged that put him in position to get the save. To Mo, the most important thing about notching a save is that it means his team has won the game.

I had pointed out Friday night that the Yankees, who have had four walk-off losses on the trip, needed to reverse the trend of one-run losses. Saturday’s 7-6 victory was a start. They are now 21-23 in one-run games, including 9-14 on the road. In addition, they kept up their dominance in day games with a 40-11 mark.

Rodriguez was back in the lineup after eight games on the shelf nursing a sprained left thumb. He was not in his familiar cleanup spot but in the 5-hole, the first time he has batted there in five years. Yankees manager Joe Girardi kept Robinson Cano in the cleanup spot where he has done superbly in A-Rod’s absence, although the All-Star second baseman had a strange day Saturday.

The Yankees needed a good dose of Alex, and he did not disappoint. Batting with a split-hand grip with tape on the bat between his hands to protect the thumb, Rodriguez lashed a single his first time up. He hit the ball hard again in his second at-bat but grounded out. Then in the fifth, he bashed the first pitch from Henderson Alvarez over the left field wall for his 16th home run, a three-run shot that got the Yankees to 6-5.

The Yankees were now in a game in which they had botched earlier chances to score. Cano made his second base-running blunder of the trip by passing Mark Teixeira at third base that resulted in a rally-killing double play after a sensational catch on the center field track by Colby Rasmus of a drive by Nick Swisher. The Yankees settled for one run that inning on a Cano sacrifice fly but failed to take advantage of an error by left fielder Adam Loewen that seemed to have opened the door for them. The next inning, Brett Gardner tripled with one down but was stranded.

Granderson, who had a perfect day (3-for-3, 2 walks, 2 RBI, 3 runs) jump-started the Yanks in the sixth with a leadoff double. Curtis has had a rough September, batting .189 this month and .133 on the trip entering play Saturday watching his average drop to .264 and his Most Valuable Player aspirations sink as well.

Perhaps Granderson started turning things around with this game. He scored on a throwing error by Rasmus off a single by Teixeira. Alvarez was coming apart at this point. He hit Cano with a pitch before serving up a first-pitch fastball to A-Rod, who scalded it for his 629th career homer, one behind fifth-place Ken Griffey Jr. on the all-time list.

Carlos Villanueva took over in the seventh, and the Yankees didn’t waste any time jumping on him. Derek Jeter beat out an infield hit on one of four ground balls he hit to shortstop in the game and scored on Granderson’s 40th home run, an impressive blow that cleared the center field wall.

While the Yankees were making all this noise, their bullpen kept the Blue Jays quiet. Colon, who remained winless in eight starts since July 30 and is 0-3 with a 4.98 during that stretch, was gone after four innings. Scott Proctor, Adam Laffey, Hector Noesi, Rafael Soriano and Rivera pitched one inning of hitless relief apiece. Soriano struck out the side in the eighth for the second straight game (he did the same Friday night in the seventh inning).

For Rivera, this was a save to be savored.

CC can’t hold lead in bid for 20th victory

No 20th victory for CC Sabathia, no record-tying save for Mariano Rivera, and no satisfaction in another one-run game. For the second straight game, the Yankees suffered a last at-bat loss on a game-winning hit off Cory Wade, who had been one of the great additions to the staff this year.

Two nights after giving up a 12th-inning, walk-off home run to the Mariners’ Luis Rodriguez at Seattle, Wade allowed a walk-off single to former Yankees catcher Jose Molina in the bottom of the ninth inning in a 5-4 loss at Toronto. Molina was the only batter Wade faced. The loss was charged to Boone Logan, who got into immediate trouble by yielding a leadoff double to Adam Lind, a left-handed hitter.

Logan has been the main – and for a good part of the season the only – lefthander out of the bullpen for the Yankees, but his success rate against left-handed hitters has not been great. Lefties are batting .268 with 7 doubles, 1 triple and 4 homers in 97 at-bats against Logan, who has given up five hits to the past seven lefty hitters he has faced. He has done better against right-handed hitters, who are batting .246 with 4 extra-base hits, all doubles, in 57 at-bats.

But this game can’t be hung solely on the pen. CC Sabathia couldn’t hang on to a two-run lead provided by Eric Chavez, who started at third base instead of thumb-hurting Alex Rodriguez, who may play Saturday. Chavez’s two-out, two-run home run in the fourth gave Sabathia a 3-1 spread to work with, but the lefthander lost it an inning later when he walked two batters to fill the bases and gave up a three-run double to Lind. The Yankees were able to tie the score to get CC off the hook, but that 20th victory will have to wait at least four more days.

Sabathia had another laborious outing as he threw 120 pitches but failed to complete six innings. Over his past four starts, CC has thrown 478 pitches, and that covers only 25 innings. The Blue Jays repeatedly let him off the hook. They stranded 14 runners, including nine against Sabathia.

Yankees bats also went silent against Toronto’s relief corps. After Nick Swisher tied the score at 4 with a two-out single in the sixth, the Yankees made 10 consecutive outs. They could not push across that run that would give Rivera a chance for his 601st save to tie Trevor Hofffman’s career record.

Rafael Soriano struck out the side in the seventh, and David Robertson pulled another Houdini act by getting himself in trouble by loading the bases in the eighth only to come away unharmed.

The Yankees are having a terrific season with the best record in the American League and a 3 ½-game lead over the Red Sox in their division, but one disturbing aspect is their record in one-run games, which are becoming more frequent of late. Their past three games, eight of 11 and nine of 14 have been decided by one run. Six of the eight games on this trip have been one-run games. The Yankees are 3-3 in those games but 20-23 overall this season, including 8-14 on the road.

It is a trend in need of reversal.

Cano proves he can go, and go, and go

Robinson Cano got several opportunities to test his right foot early in Friday night’s game at Toronto’s Rogers Centre. In his last at-bat Wednesday night in the 12th inning at Seattle, Cano was hit hard in the side of his right foot by a pitch. He remained in the game that ended in the bottom of that inning but was limping noticeably.

After a day off Thursday, the last one for the Yankees until the end of the regular season, Cano was back in the lineup Friday night in the cleanup spot because Yankees manager Joe Girardi decided to give Alex Rodriguez one more day off his bruised left thumb. A-Rod is expected to start Saturday and probably play third base.

Cano was thrown into the fire immediately. In his first at-bat leading off the second inning he got a hit down the right field line and got on his horse trying to stretch it into a double but was out on a strong throw from right fielder Jose Bautista and an even better tag by shortstop Mike McCoy.

Two innings later, Cano was on base again after he grounded into a fielder’s choice for the second out. Nick Swisher followed with a double to right-center that sent Cano around the bases for the Yankees’ first run that made the score 1-1. Eric Chavez then put the Yankees ahead with a home run to center.

After the Blue Jays regained the lead off CC Sabathia in the fifth on a bases-clearing double by Adam Lind, Cano was on the run again in the sixth with a double to right-center. Another two-out hit by Swisher, a single this time, had Cano scampering to the plate with the tying run.

While Cano proved healthy, the Yankees have other injury issues other than Rodriguez. Backup catcher Francisco Cervelli was back in New York with post-concussion syndrome. He is to be re-examined Monday when the Yankees return to open a homestand starting with a rainout makeup game against the Twins that afternoon.

Cervelli’s condition may force the Yankees to use a rookie, Jesus Montero or Austin Romine, as the backup to catcher Russell Martin in the post-season, unless the team has second thoughts about using Jorge Posada behind the plate. Girardi won’t expand on the matter until the team clinches a playoff berth.

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