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Wells swell, but still winless

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"I think I need to throw more strikes. The balls are killing me."--Carlos Marmol, in today's Chicago Tribune.

Carlos Marmol's balls may be killing him, but Randy Wells is the one in real pain.

Things were going all too well for Wells, even after he lost his no-hit bid in the 7th inning and gave up a solo homer to start the 8th. The Cubs were still ahead 5-1, and Wells was only around the 80-pitch mark. It was his game to win, it seemed.

Then, however, a Cubbie moment: Derrek Lee blew an easy catch at first base, allowing a runner aboard on an error. True Cubs fans had to know this uncharacteristic sort of blunder means things are about to go very, very wrong. The next thing to go wrong was ou Piniella yanking Wells after just 83 pitches right after the error.

This, of course, seems like a safe thing to do with a four-run lead in the 8th inning, but I'm still baffled, if only because Wells had made only one real mistake the whole game with the solo homer. The hit he gave up in the 7th was to Chipper Jones, one of the best in the business. He did not record an out after facing two batters in the 8th, but that wasn't his fault. Besides, Wells has done a great job in at least two recent starts pitching himself out of big jams with men on base, most recently against the Dodgers last week. And, he was really on last night. At least give him one more batter after Lee's botched play, to give him the chance to show whether or not he's had enough.

The only thing worse than yanking Wells too early is putting Carlos Marmol in with a man already on base. See, when, given his own inning to start, the wild, jittery Marmol likes to load the bases before settling down and working out it. If he starts with a man on base--well, you do the math. Marmol was a mess, walking in a run, hitting a guy--the usual. He left with the Cubs up 5-3 and less margin for error by cloer Kevin Gregg the following inning.

The next Cubbie moment was a dropped third strike. With one out in the bottom of the 9th and Gregg looking aggressive and effective, Garrett Anderson swung and missed a ball in the dirt. Geovany Soto missed it, too, and Anderson was on. One out later, Gregg faced hometown Atlanta boy Jeff Francouer, the Braves guy I would least like to see in that situation. I would have even rather seen Chipper, who is less likely to hurt you with a homerun. The hometown boy made good, leaving it 5-5 for three innings, during which the Cubs mostly waited for the Braves to figure out how to win.

In the end, it was Chipper driving a man home from second with one out and first base open. I believe the manager's handbook says to walk the career .311 hitter in that situation. That would have brought up another good hitter, catcher Brian McCann, but it also would have set up an easy inning-ended double play on almost any ground ball. Lou would have none of it, and that was that.

This game did have other bright spots besides Wells; swell and ultimately wasted effort. Alfonso Soriano ledd off the game with a homerun, and is now in second place for career homers leading off a game. D-Lee hit a rare homer, and had an all-around good day except for the untimely error.

Just another game at the beginning of June, I know and nothing to fret too much about. Just another lost opportunity, and hopefully, the Cubs won't finish one lost opportunity out of the postseason.

Athlete's foot

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Carlos Quentin has plantar fasciitis (two "i"s, according to Yahoo! Sports), which Bulls fans may remember pretty much derailed Andres Nocioni's career playing basketball in Chicago. By all accounts, it's a heinous condition that is either addressed by surgery and a very long lay-off, or by playing through the pain until something "pops," as it did with CQ. Unfortunately, this also involves a long lay-off.

When Quentin came to town, he had promise, but also injury problems. First, we saw the promise being fulfilled, and since late last season, the injury part has taken over. Is it too early to wonder if he will ever hit more than 30 homeruns again? Probably, but for now, his time out of the line-up means one less power option for the Sox and the loss of a pretty effective No. 3 hitter. It looks like Jermaine Dye will fill the slot for the most part.

JeDye has been doing OK, hitting around .280. Paul Konerko is the only regular in the line-up now who is still hitting over .300, which is surprising, considering he looked to be entering gradual career breakdown last year. Last night against the Angels, he was responsible for driving in the Sox' only run with a sacrifice fly (scoring Dye).

Pitching continues to be the real story for the Sox: Gavin Floyd turned in his second straight strong performance and the latest in a string of strong performances, as Sox starters haven't given up more than 3 ER in a game since May 17, when Floyd got shelled for 6 ER in 5 IP. Floyd lost this one 3-1, only making a couple of mistakes, both run-scoring double in the 6th inning. He threw a complete game.

With Quentin gone for a while and the offense rarely piling up runs like the 17-run effort in Anaheim this week, the Sox will need more of the same from the rest of the rotation.

24 good reasons for 17 runs

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The Sox won two of three with strong pitching and just enough offense in the right spots before they left for one of those nerve-racking West Coast road trips (albeit a quick one, to play the Angels). Generally speaking, the Sox have had a ton of offensive trouble this year, and the Angels have put together some strong pitching outings.

What a surprise then to see the Sox explode for 17 runs on 24 hits. The Sox only had four walks, but it was more impressive the way the attacked pitches down the center of the plate before the Angels pitchers could really establish themselves. Patience certainly is a virtue at the plate, but it's also nice to see batters so confident and so unwilling to let an opponent settle in that they attack the ball.

Scott Podsednik continued to hang tough, with a 4-5 outing, and Alexei "The Missile" Ramirez may finally be airborne, going 4-7 with another all-around strong game that raised his average to .243. Jim Thome, Jermaine Dye and Paul Konerko were the predictable homer contributors. John Danks pitched well enough for the second game in a row, though he had an unsightly 6 walks, but there wasn't much he could do to lose this one.

The only bad moment in this game was a big one, when Carlos Quentin pulled up lame legging out a double, his nagging foot injury suddenly terribly worse--he had to be helped off the field. The Sox have been missing C.Q.'s bat most of the year, and even when he's been in, he's been off. Looks like Pods will be getting more PT, which is still a good thing, but for how long?

Mighty K.C.

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The Sox have lost two in a row in Kansas City and four in a row overall. With the struggling Jose Contreras set to take the mound Wednesday night, I'm not feeling confident about their chances to bust the losing streak.

With the exception of a 3-0 loss to 2009 Cy Young Award Winner Zack Greinke the other night (What? You say they haven't given him the Cy Young yet?), the problems have been mostly in the pitching department. Last night, gavin Floyd let another lead get away from him after the Sox put him ahead 4-1 early on. Things actually looked pretty good in the early going because the Sox managed to hit well off Kyle Davies, the K.C. pitcher who previously has mystified them.

But, Floyd eventually let 6 runs go to waste before departing, and Matt Thornton and Octavio Dotel helped the Royals to a 7th run as this one went into extras 7-7. The Royals won 8-7 in 11 innings. No, K.C. is not the whimpering mess it once was, and the Sox are now 1-4 this season against the Royals. The worst stat from Wednesday night's game was a woeful 11 walks issued by Sox pitchers.

The Sox actually out-hit K.C. 16-11, so maybe they should have come up with a few more runs. Jermain Dye and Josh Field both homered, A.J. Pierzynski was 4-5, Carlos Quentin was 3-5, and Scott Podsednik had 2 RBIs, but as a team, the Sox left 13 men on base.

Still, I find pitching more troubling right now, as the bullpen has begun to weaken, and Contreras, Floyd and even John Danks have strung together a series of poor outings. Who thought at the start of the season that Bartolo Colon would be the second-most effective pitcher on the Sox after Mark Buehrle. Giving Contreras a breather might not be a bad idea, especially with Aaron Poreda picthing well in the minors, but Ozzie Guillen seems resolved to let Contreras find his old self while hacking his way through meaningful games.

Yes, it is still early, but K.C. is in 1st place, and we don't want them to get used to it.

Scotty Pods is back

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Scott Podsednik is back in black. After a brief stop in the minors the White Sox called him up (and sent down Jerry Owens) for what likely will be the swan song to Scotty Pods' career. The only question: How long will it last?

If tonight is any indication, Pods is feeling comfortable with the organization which he helped drive to World Series Championship glory back in 2005. He was 2-4 with an infield hit, and caused enough havoc on the basepaths to draw a balk. He also had a nice hit-and-run on his second hit.

Who know how long it will last, but with Owens shipped and Brian Anderson injured, we're likely to see more of Pods in the days to come.

The Sox won, by the way, 4-3, behind gutsy pitching from Mark Buehrle against the team he no-hit last April, the Texas Rangers. But, tonight was almost as impressive, as Buehrle held the Rangers to 3 runs in a park that usually yields many more.

Jim Thome had a bases-loaded double to score 3 of the Sox' 4 runs, and Chris Getz tripled to score Podsednik in the 7th inning immediately after the balk brough him to 2nd base.

Trop toppers

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The Cubs' Sunday Night Special was rained out and postponed until July 12 (SBW's birthday, by the way), but the White Sox scored enough runs for both teams, beating the Rays 12-2. The Sox took 3 of 4 from the Rays down at Tropicana Field (which is in St. Pete, not Tampa, by the way), a indoor park which usually gives them fits almost as bad as they get up at the Metrodome... almost.

Could this spell an end to the Sox misfortune in domes? Maybe we'll find out when the Sox go to Toronto in a few days. Right now, they are getting ready to face Baltimore at Camden Yards tomorrow, and perhaps some of them are reliving the experience of meeting President Obama, the nation's "highest-ranking White Sox fan," today at the White House. It's pretty hilarious about Octavio Dotel asking for and receiving a hug from The Chief.

But back to Sunday: Gavin Floyd pitched very well after his first two outings had been shaky, logging 7 IP, 7 Ks and no walks. Carlos Quentin now leads the league in homers with 7 after getting his 3rd in 3 games and his 5th in the last week. Everybody in the line-up had a hit except for late fill-in Jerry Owens, and Brian Anderson--he only had 2 hits on the year entering Sunday--went 3-5 in the game. A.J. Pierzynski and Jim Thome both had round-trippers. Paul Konerko had 2 more RBIs.

The Sox not only won this series, they mad ethe Rays look bad and they came within a run--some might say one pitch--of sweeping their 2008 postseason nemesis. They need to keep the memory of this experience top of mind so they can access it later on. They may want to remember that visit to the White House, too.

Time to shine

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OK, White Sox, you're in control of your own destiny as you start your biggest three-game series of the year tonight in Minnesota. If you're good enough, you came back home Central Division champs with three days to get your postseason plans in order. I would say 2 out of 3 would be just fine, but why settle for anything less than a sweep. Think about the four games in a row in June when you beat Minnesota at home, not the three out of four you lost to them at the Dome the following month.

Paulie's hitting, Thome's hitting, the Missile is ready to launch, DeWayne Wise is ready to run. If Junior wants to be a hero for the Sox, the time is now. Vazquez is due for one of his lock-down performances. Let's get thee to the postseason to compete for the Windy City World Series match-up SBW was found upon almost 40 games ago.

Since last we posted, the Sox took care of business on Sunday, shutting out K.C. 3-0 on a strong performance by Danks, and with help from a two-run HR by Paulie. It would have been so much better and easier going up to Piranha-land with a three-game hold on 1st place, but the Sox could only take 2 out of 3 in K.C. If they don't have the best of luck in Minnesota, Cleveland certainly won't be a pushover, and Minnesota has an easier season-closing assignment vs. K.C.

Most Sox fans would cringe at this, but what the Sox need right now is a little of the so-called Cubbie Swagger (Piniella's words). The Cubs still seem to have it, despite clinxhing the division over the weekend, and certainly will need it for the long road ahead. They beat the Cards 5-1 on Sunday to take the regular season Wrigley Field finale, and last night beat up a Mets team that is supposed to be competing for a play-off spot. Marquis was pretty solid and helped himself by hitting a grand slam, which proved to be the margin of victory in the 9-5 win by the Cubs.

Who would you like to see the Cubs take on in their first postseason series? The Mets, with their terrible bullpen, seem like the easiest mark, but they still have Johan Santana to possibly start two first round games if they get in and make the series last long enough--let's see what the Cubs do against Santana tonight before we go any further with that one. The Dodgers would be a challenge. The Cubs took the season series, but that was before Manny showed up. they have a couple good young pitchers and a decent older one by the name of Maddux. They also have great young hitters like Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. Personally, I'm most scared of the Phillies, who have those big left-handed bats. Though Scott Eyre had a tough year with the Cubs before being dumped and later picked up by the Phils, I think he would be a better postseason late-inning southpaw option than anything the Cubs have to offer. Neal Cotts may have a World Series ring from the Southside, but I don't think he has any edge vs. Chase Utley or Ryan Howard. And, Phillies starters were very good in a four-gamer last month against the Cubs, which the Cubs split, but only just barely.

Cubs clinch, Sox wait

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Finally and decisively, though hardly easily, the Cubs clinched the Central Division title for the second straight year, giving them a postseason berth for the second straight year for the first time in 100 years.

The Cubs beat the Cardinals 5-4, and were able to take advantage of some poor fielding early in the game on a base-loaded single by Al-So that turned into a double and scored three runs. DeRo added an RBI later, and even Lilly drove in a run on a squueze bunt. Lilly was pretty good, except for a four-run 6th, and Marmol and Woody made almost no mistakes in preserving the close victory.

There was much debate about whether or not the Cubs would celebrate--or perhaps how they would celebrate--given that the World Series is the ultimate target and this team is supposed to be so different than past Cubs teams. To me, it looked like the usually bubbly bath over fresh Division Champ T-shirts and caps for everyone, complete with stupid observations from media and fans about how there's just nothing better than this. Sure there is, and getting to the World Series would be just a start.

Sorry if I sound a bit sour. Maybe, I'm still mad that they didn't clinch when I was at Wrigley yesterday, but my desire to stay serious--even through the next week just to go into the postseason on the right foot--is also just a reflection of how far the Cubs have to go, and how hard it will be. I was happy to hear many of the Cubs players take the same tone in their post-game interview today.

For the rest of the way, I'd like to see the Cubs play their regulars, with a couple exceptions: Theriot should maybe get some prolonged rest, while putting in additional time at the batting cage to get out of his awful slump. Also, while Fukie used to be a regular, he no longer is, and I think Lou should actually start him the rest of the way against whatever right handers are left, perhaps make him a bunt a few times and work hard on drawing walks and stealing bases if he gets on. His main value right now is as a glove man, but his experience and training give him some valuable tools that could be key during the postseason--and he may night have to drive the ball anywhere to make something happen. If the Cubs get in some close games during the next week, I'd also like to see them use Samarzdija and Howry in set-up and closer roles at least once--maybe give Marmol and Woody a night off, though not every night off, and get the Notre Dame kid and the embattled Howry into a few more tight situations.

The White Sox won last night 9-4 and, witrh a Piranhas loss, got their magic number down to 7. Today, the Sox lost, but the with the Piranhas still being tortured by the now-postseason-bound
Rays, the magic number slid down to 6. It's looking an awful lot like this week's trip to Minnesota will be the crucible.

Last night, Buehrle was on short rest, but pretty solid through 6 IP, and didn't implode after giving up a 3-run HR to Sox nemesis Mark Teahen. The big blast for the Sox was The Missile's third grand slam of the year, which came after an epic nine-pitch at-bat where you could tell Alexei had K.C. pitcher Brian Bannister under his thumb. With CQ out, the young, skinny Cuban has become the most surprisingly potent offensive threat for this team.

And what about DeWayne Wise? He hit two HRs Friday night and has four in the last week. The Great and Powerful Oz should play him as often as possible the rest of the way, since Dirty 30 can not necessarily be counted on.

The Sox have pitchers working on short rest now with mixed results. Gavin Floyd seemed like a sure thing today, but was not good, as far as what we have come to expect from him. He gave up 5 runs in just over 6 IP. The Sox never really got it together at the plate either. The Missile homered again, but this time with only one man on base, and very late in the game. The Sox managed only three other hits. When they are off the mark, they are way, way off. The division still belongs to the White Sox, though, and it will be their division to win or lose the rest of the way.

We are having technical difficulties

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I tried to post after yesterday's amazing comeback, extra-inning victory by the Cubs, and last evening's complete breakdown by the Sox, but kept getting errors when I tried to save. Just as well, because I might have been over-reacting to both events at the time.

The Cubs 7-6 win happened after the Cubs had been four runs down in the mottom of the 9th with two out. I was literally in the act of changing the channel as A-Ram took his first swing and saw the ball trip through Ryan Braun's legs before it the channel actually flipped over. I turned back to the game, of course, and had almost no chance to think about the possibilities before Geo tied the game 6-6 on a three-run no-doubter HR. At that point, I refused to entertain the idea the Cubs would lose this one, even after Woody had put two men on in scoring position with no out in the 11th. D-Lee came through in the 12th, and like that the magic number when from stuck at 4 on down to 2.

Piniella joked with reporters afterward about tying one on after the game, and from the looks of today's peformance, which I unfortunately witnessed live, everyone tied one on last night. Zambrano, in his first appareance since his no-hitter, was awful, the worst he could possibly be, and I'm not just talking about his pitching. He was charged with eight runs in less than two inning, and looked the polar opposite of the guy who no-hit Houston less than a week ago. But, the worst part was that as Piniella came to remove him, he stormed off the mound before his glacially slow manager made it all the way out to the mound. Piniella looked absolutely livid and pointed Z back to the mound. It looked like Z Big Cry Baby had a few more words for Piniella before departing and ripping at the buttons on his jersey.

Reportedly, Zambrano's grandmother just passed away, and no one can blame him for feeling bad about that, but at this time of all times, the Cubs needed him to handle that pain, and his apparent disappointment in himself, like a grown man. The Cubs will clinch the division, hopefully this weekend, but this is the last kind of distraction anyone needs. How could this guy go from unhittable and gracious on Sunday night to awful and immature on Friday afternoon? Grow up now, Z, because the postseason is not for big babies.

The Cubs went on to lose 12-6. Most of the starters played like they were hung over (though I'm sure they are all too professional to let that happen), but the scrubs (Casey McGeehee?) tried to make a game of it. Tune in tomorrow to find out if the Cubs are ready to win this thing.

The White Sox rolled over and played dead last night, and just when you thought the Piranhas would help out again as they started a series vs. the Amazin' Rays, they actually won and cut the Sox lead to 1-1/2 games.

Vazquez was not as bad last night as Zammy was today, but he was not good, and left in the 4th inning down 4-1. The bullpen let that lead build to 7-1, and the cause not helped by a key error by the Missile, who is great and everything, but really needs to concentrate a bit better sometimes. The bullpen overall was better than Vazquez, but is really starting raise concerns.

Meanwhile, Paulie took most of the season to start hitting, but now he's the only one. He had a run-scoring double and homer last night. The Sox have failed to fully take advantage of a recent tailspin by the Piranhas (I know, the metaphor doesn't work), and had better be ready to play some very important games next week in Minnesota.

Feel the magic

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SBW took a couple days off to tend to real life, and look what happened: The Cubs' magic number is down to 4 and the White Sox' magic number is down to 10. We're getting closer...

The last two games for the Cubs: Oh, not much happened at all, just another near no-hitter, this one by Ted Lilly, followed by another of Woody's heart attack specials. The Cubs finished their "road trip" playing Houston in Milwaukee by demoralizing the Astros for the second straight game, winning 6-1 behind Lilly, who no-hit the Astros into the 7th (though he was not nearly as dominating as Zambrano the night before). The Cubs actually scored in three different innings, which hasn't happened a whole lot lately. Power was back in vogue at the plate, with D-Lee, Geo and Old Man Edmonds all going yard. A-Ram also had a sac fly. the Astros are not out of it yet, but with this two-game run, the Cubs kinda killed the 'Stros momentum. They not only beat a team they have had trouble with this year, but also cooled off the hottest team in the Central Division since the second half started.

We won't give back the wins, but it's terribly unfortunate that these games had to be moved to what was definitely not a neutral site. How can a Cubs fan talk that way? I'm a baseball fan, too, and I don't like when MLB appears to give teams that can provide better postseason ratings a leg up. Moving the games elsewhere may have changed the course of history--maybe Zammy wouldn't have thrown a no-hitter, and maybe the Cubs would have had a tougher time winning both, but it would have been the right thing to do. Instead, I think MLB's favorable treament gave other teams even more reasons to want to beat the Cubs. The third game of the series likely will now go un-played, unless the Astros remain in contention to the final weekend.

Last night, the Cubs came back home from their vacation home in Milwaukee to face... Milwaukee. When the Cubs were swooning, I was not looking forward to this series at all, but the Brewers have been swooning even worse since, and fired manager Ned Yost, a shocking move. Yost may have overseen the Beermakers' swoon, but he was torpedoed by tightly-wound hitters and a terrible bullpen. Still, maybe it's what the Brewers need to make the postseason.

But, if they do make it into October, it will be as a wild card. The Cubs virtually assured themselves the division flag with last night's 5-4 win. If they can sweep the series, they win the Central and make what looked like a murderous stretch of games from now until the end of the season almost meaningless. This one wasn't easy. The Cubs had to face CC, and did well against him for the second time, scoring three runs in the first three innings, but he got better as the game went on. Meanwhile, Dempster piled up Ks early on, but later let Prince Fielder chip away with a mammoth right field HR. Al-So added a solo HR that gave the Cubs a 4-2 edge, but Fielder added another HR, this one almost more impressive because it was muscled out opposite field against filthy Carlos Marmol.

The Cubs added another run for a 5-3 edge in the 9th, which is more often than not the kind of cushion Woody needs. He gave up a run-scoring double to Ray Durham, who is a great clutch hitter going back to his days on the Sox, but if it's possible to make a 96 MPH fastball easy to hit, Woody did just that, pushing it over the middle of the plate just above the knees. After a cheap infield single by Ryan Braun, Woody stared down Fielder with men on 1st and 3rd, two outs. Woody ended up facing the one guy no one wanted to see him face, and as Fielder worked to a 3-2 count and kept fouling of fastballs, this looked like the kind of at-bat the pitcher can't win. But, Woody dropped in a waist-high slider (or curve, some said) that shocked everyone watching, most of all Fielder. Again Woody turned in a final inning that makes you queasy when you think of October games, but he got it done.

The last two games for the White Sox: The bullpen imploded on Sunday, and though the Sox still managed to win, it didn't make you feel good about Monday's game against the Yankees. The Yanks have almost nothing to play for except a small amount of pride in leaving their old stadium on a winning note. Still, with Buehrle starting Monday, things looked OK early on. DeWayne Wise homered for the second straight game, but after Buehrle left the game 2-2, the bullpen couldn't hold and the Sox eventually lost 4-2. More concerning than the bullpen performance, however, was a flat performance by the offense. Dirty 30, filling in for the still-injured Paulie, was 0 for 3 and saw his average go down to .220, though he wasn't the only culprit. The Sox seemed to lack play-off race urgency, but the Piranhas may be having more problems: After losing in Baltimore Sunday despite crushing the O's earlier in the weekend, the Twins lost in Cleveland Monday night. The Sox often have seen the Twins become their main nemesis in the play-off hunt, and the Twins have ruthlessly dispatched the Sox more than once, but this year, it seems like the Twins want to give it away.

Tuesday night was much better for the Sox. Gavin Floyd again proved to be exactly what they needed on the mound, while the offense scored often with power (The Missile fired on into the left field seats) and finesse (Paulie was back and delivered a run-scoring hit, Junior delivered and RBI and both B.A. and uribe and two-out RBIs). Paulie has been building back to full strength, and only last week, his sprained MCL looked like it would kill his momentum, but he seems to have lost no steam at all. The Sox won 6-2, and even though the bullpen had a big lead to work with, scoreless innings by Thornton and Jenks meant a lot in this one. And, hard to believe, but the toothless Piranhas lost again. Thanks, Cleveland.

The Sox are now again 2.5 games up on Minnesota. They have reached this threshold before only to give games back. If they can manage to add just one game to that lead in the next five very winnable games against the Yanks and K.C., they will be in great position going into Minnesota next week. And, while it would be great to clinch the division at home (especially Sept. 26, when I will next be at The Cell), it would also be fun to do it in Minnesota, wouldn't it?

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