April 25, 2014

Nats Nightly for April 24: 4-3 loss to Padres in 12

Dave Nichols of District Sports Page and Patrick Reddington of Federal Baseball discuss the Washington Nationals 12 inning loss to the San Diego Padres, 4-3.

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Washington Nationals Game 23 Review: Padres scratch one out in 12th to top Nats 4-3

Wednesday night, the Washington Nationals won in their final ups. Thursday night, they could not duplicate the feat.

The San Diego Padres scratched out a run in the top of the 12th inning off reliever Craig Stammen on a single, stolen base, throwing error, and RBI single by a former National, and fell 4-3 as they went 0-for-16 with runners in scoring position and left 14 men on base.

The Nats (12-11) broke on top in the third inning. Jordan Zimmermann (6 IP, 3 ER, 5 H, 1 BB, 5 K)  singled to lead off, but was erased on Span’s infield grounder. Span then stole second and took third on Stults’ wild pick-off throw to first. Anthony Rendon followed with a high fly ball to medium deep left field, and Span walked home on the sacrifice fly.

The Padres answered in the top of the fourth. With one out, Chris Denorfia singled off Ian Desmond’s glove as the shortstop ranged to his right. Seth Smith followed with a double to the right field corner, which scored Denorfia all the way from first as the relay didn’t quite catch him at the plate.

San Diego got two more in the sixth. Stults led off with a double to the left center gap that Bryce Harper took a bad route on, allowing to go to the wall. Zimmermann got the next two batters, but a walk to Seth Smith allowed Yasmani Grandal to deliver a two-run double to right center.

Danny Espinosa cut the lead in half with one swing in the bottom half. He lined a 3-1 offering from Stults into the third row in straightaway left for his second home run of the season. The Nats put two more on in the inning, but couldn’t push across the tying run.

They did in the seventh.

With one out, Adam LaRoche unloaded on a fastball from Nick Vincent, delivering the ball to the Nats bullpen for his fourth home run of the season, tying the game at three.

The Nats loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth with two outs, but Espinosa popped up to short to end the threat.

Jedd Gyorko singled with one out in the top of the 12th. He stole second, then went to third as Lobaton air mailed his throw down. Predictably, he scored when very-briefly-a Nats Xavier Nady singled back through the box off Stammen (L, 0-1, 4.40).

The Nats got leadoff doubles in both the 10th and 12th innings, but manager Matt Williams elected to not sacrifice bunt them to third. In the 10th, Tim Stauffer struck out three straight to quash the rally. In the 12th, Huston Street (S, 8) struck out Tyler Moore, then got Jose Lobaton to line out to short, and Harper was picked off behind the play to end the game.

The Nats play game the second of the four-game series with the Padres Friday at 7:05. Stephen Strasburg (1-2, 5.33) faces LHP Robbie Erlin (1-2, 4.15).

 

Nats Pregame: Fister, Hairston nearing rehab start

WASHINGTON — The Washington Nationals start a four-game series with the San Diego Padres at 7:05 Thursday, with Jordan Zimmermann (1-1, 3.92) hosting LHP Eric Stults (1-2, 4.35).

Before the game, Nats manager Matt Williams updated the media on the status of two injured players nearing rehab stints.

Starting pitcher Doug Fister threw a bullpen session earlier in the day, throwing 40 pitches for the Nats pitching staff and reported feeling good during and after the session. He’s now scheduled to throw four innings and up to 60 pitches on Sunday, with the most logical destination being Potomac.

“I think it’s going to be at Potomac,” Williams said. ”He felt good in the bullpen today, so he’s good to go for his next one and that one is four [innings] and 60-ish [pitches]. Depending on how he gets through it. The pitch count is one thing, but four ups and working into a real game situation is more important, but four and 60, roughly.”

Williams indicated Fister wasn’t thrilled with his location, but the skipper is more concerned with his pitcher getting through the sessions with nothing more than normal pitching soreness.

“I talked to him today about it,” Williams explained. “He said, ‘My location wasn’t exactly where I want it to be, but I felt good about it.’ So, that’s all I care about really. Is how he feels, because I know that the location will be there as he builds and as he gets stronger and he works into the fourth, sixth, seventh inning, it will be there. So I’m not concerned about stuff-wise right now, I just want to make sure that he feels good about it. And so far, so good. He feels good. Ready for his next one.”

Will the ‘next one’ be in the major leagues? “It depends on how he feels,” Williams responded. “But, generally, if he can get through this next one and get to five [innings] and 75-ish [pitches] then you would say he’s good to go for a major league start. It depends on how he feels though. So we’ll keep that in mind as we go. It’s still unclear. Got to get him through this next one.”

Williams then explained that outfielder Scott Hairston is about ready to take a rehab assignment as well. Hairston will take early batting practice with the team on Friday, then live BP on Saturday, along with his rehab work. If all goes according to plan, Hairston could begin a rehab assignment as early as Sunday or Monday. He’ll probably need four or five games (roughly 20 plate appearances) before being ready to be activated.

Nats Nightly for April 23: Werth, LaRoche cap 9th inning comeback; more Harper hustle?

Dave Nichols of District Sports Page and Patrick Reddington of Federal Baseball discuss the Washington Nationals ninth inning comeback against the Los Angeles Angels, salvaging the finale of the series 5-4.

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Washington Nationals Game 22 Review: Nats rally from 3 runs down in ninth to top Angels 5-4

The Washington Nationals were staring down their first real slump of the 2014 season, trailing the Los Angeles Angels 4-1 heading to the bottom of the ninth, having dropped the first two games of the series. As Matt Williams said after the game though, “That’s why we play 27 [outs]. That’s why we have to play every out.”

The Nats made a furious comeback, capped by Adam LaRoche’s RBI single, which plated Jayson Werth from second base to deliver the Nats an unexpected 5-4 win, before 22,504 at Nationals Park.

The comeback started with Jose Lobaton homering off Angels closer Ernesto Friere (0-2, 9.35). After pinch-hitter Zach Walters struck out, Denard Span snuck a ground ball up the middle for a  single. Frieri walked Anthony Rendon on two close pitches, then Werth came to the plate.

The veteran, who seems to relish big ninth inning at bats, looked at three offerings — all outside the strike zone — then jumped on a 3-0 fastball, ripping it past the third base bag. The ball caromed off the jut in the left field fence and bounced into short left, where left fielder J.B. Shuck had to track it down. It took long enough for Rendon to scoot all the way home from first base with the tying run.

LaRoche then pounced on Friere’s next pitch, lining it over the shortstop to drive in Werth to start the celebration.

The ninth inning comeback made a winner of Drew Storen (2-0, 1.17), who gave up a run-scoring hit to Mike Trout in the top half of the inning.

The Nats struck first in what seemed like a different game. With one out in the second inning, Danny Espinosa bunted his way on and stole second base. A ground out by Lobabton moved him over to third, and Gio Gonzalez’ soft liner to left brought him home for the first run of the game.

Surprisingly, that single run didn’t stand up. Gonzalez cruised through five innings after a bit of a first inning scare. But he’d retired 11 in a row leading up to the sixth. Mike Trout drew a walk, and after ball one to Albert Pujols, pitching coach Steve McCatty came out to chat and Aaron Barrett started warming up. Pujols then smashed a double down the left field line that bounced off the jutting part of the fence in the same location Werth would later strike. Bryce Harper made a good play on the ball and his throw home was close, but Trout slid under the tag to tie the game.

Then, shockingly, after just 83 pitches, manager Matt Williams came out with the hook. Gonzalez finished with five innings pitch, two earned runs on four hits and three walks, with five strikeouts. After the game, Williams revealed Gonzalez experienced a bit of tightness in his shoulder in the cold weather, and the manager and player agreed that he should come out at that point.

Barrett was called upon, and after a ground out moved Pujols up a base, he scored on a single by Erick Aybar. Just like that, the Nats were trailing.

In the bottom half, Adam LaRoche beat the shift with a seeing-eye single. Harper came up an offered a bunt for strike one, then with two strikes inexplicable tried to bunt again, popping up foul for the out and slamming his bat in the batter box, showing his frustration.

The Angels added a run in the seventh. David Freese led off with a double off Barrett, went to third on a ground out to first, and scored on a wild pitch.

They weren’t done. In the ninth, Raul Ibanez scored from second on a single to left field by Trout. But all that did was set up the fireworks of the bottom half of the inning.

The Nats host the San Diego Padres in a four-game series starting Thursday at 7:05 pm. Jordan Zimmermann (1-1, 3.94) hosts LHP Eric Stultz (1-2, 4.35).

DSP Interview: Rookie reliever Aaron Barrett adjusting to the major leagues

As part of the online-only media that covers the Washington Nationals, in addition to press box and press conference access, District Sports Page is granted access to the clubhouse one day each month. Wednesday was the day for April. We caught up with Nats rookie reliever Aaron Barrett and talked with him about his Major League debut, being up and down to and from the minors in the early season, the attention he’s getting in the national media, and how he’s fitting in with the other members of the bullpen and the clubhouse in general.

On being up and down in the first few weeks of the season: ”It’s just kind of part of the game. I can’t really control it, but we needed a fresh arm. So it was just one of those things where they brought Blake Treinen in, he’s a starter, he was able to get our bullpen back to where we needed to get and at the same time, I go down for ten days, get my work in and I’m just glad they were able to call me back up.

On manager Matt Williams willing to use him anywhere from sixth to ninth innings: ”It definitely gives me confidence. But knowing that, it doesn’t matter what the score is, what inning it is for me, as a player I just know that my job is to go get guys out. Whether we’re up, whether we’re down, whether it’s the sixth, whether it’s the ninth, whatever inning, whatever situation, my job is to control what I can control and get guys out and everything else, it is what it is.”

On making opening day roster: ”It was awesome. It’s everything that you worked for, for that moment. Honestly, in my mind I pictured myself getting the call-up through the year, middle of the year or whatever, so I never really envisioned myself making the team out of Spring Training would be basically my call-up. It’s great. It’s a blessing knowing that all the hard work has paid off. And I’m just really happy to be here.”

On having his family at Citifield for opening day: “My wife. Her mom and then my parents and my brother. They all came and they got to see me pitch. It was just a very surreal experience. It was really awesome.”

On his debut performance itself: “I was warming up in, I think it was the seventh inning, we were losing 4-2 initially, so I was going to get my debut we were losing by two runs. And then we tied it up and I’m sitting there in the bullpen and starting to thing, ‘I still might get a shot.’ So it was a tie game and there were some righties coming up, so I think Skip had confidence with some righties coming up it didn’t matter and I’m just glad that I was able to take some deep breaths and really embrace it all. Ian Desmond and Adam LaRoche made sure they came out and made sure I enjoyed that Opening Day and that first experience in the big leagues and that was just a moment I’ll never forget.”

On National media speculating he’ll close in the big leagues some day: “I mean, not really. I try not to focus too much on that. I mean, that’s way down the road in the future. We’ve got a great closer right now in Soriano and he’s been doing it a long, long time. I did it in the minor leagues, which I think has helped me prepare for Major League hitters, but right now my focus is to get guys out. I’m not really worried about that type of stuff. Yeah, it’s great that they would consider that, but I focus on the present moment and just try to get better every day.”

On input from Soriano: “I was chatting with him yesterday. We were just talking about situations, you know, ‘don’t let the best hitter beat you’, just stuff like that. If there’s a base open and you’re facing the three-hole guy, you just gotta be smart; pick who you want to talk to. So far, [Soriano]‘s helped me a lot. And the whole bullpen really has too. Just situation-wise, what type of hitters, what to throw in what counts. So everyone in the whole bullpen has been very knowledgeable and very helpful for me transitioning from the minors to here. So that’s been great.”

On the different personalities in the pen: “We have a good time, but at the same time we know when to lock it in. We like to look at the hitters and see how the game’s going. The starters during the game give us a good idea of what pitches to work in what counts. I think everyone in the bullpen has at least four years service time on me, so that helps me a whole lot. They’ve been just tremendous as far as helping me transition. Not only on the field, but off the field as well. It’s great to be here  with them. It’s a great clubhouse. Hopefully we can keep it rolling.”

On difference in perspective between former starters and long time short relievers: “Starting and reliever is just so different. As a starter, you’re facing these hitters three or four times through the lineup, so you have to have a certain strategy. When you’re coming in as a reliever you might face that guy one time so you gotta have your best stuff — that pitch — and it’s more high-intensity. So it’s just a little bit different, but at the same time as a starter and reliever, either way, you’re going out there and you’re attacking the hitters.”

Nats defensive woes not so much mental as physical

The Washington Nationals lead the National League in errors. It’s as simple as that. Ian Desmond leads all players with eight errors himself. Anthony Rendon, Danny Espinosa, Ryan Zimmerman and even Bryce Harper in the outfield have multiple errors in 21 games. These errors are extending innings, creating more of a burden for the pitchers, and directly contributing to runs.

The Nats like to look at themselves as true contenders. But a championship caliber team does not give away base runners for free. The primary indicator for wins and losses is total baserunners for and against. The defensive lapses we’re seeing from the Nats, primarily on ground balls, are leading to more baserunners against, which of course leads to more runs against.

Manager Matt Williams placed an emphasis on defense and accountability during spring training, as if attention to detail was the reason for the Nats lack of performance in the field. The problem isn’t as much mental as it is physical.

Tuesday night after the Nats’ 7-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels, a game in which the normally sure-handed Rendon committed two throwing errors — one of which lead to Albert Pujols three-run home run in the first inning — Williams was perplexed on the poor start defensively for the Nats.

“I’m baffled,” Williams said when asked how concerned he was about the defense and what he could do to stem the poor play. “What do you do? You just keep doing what we do. You keep working at it. We work on it every day. And we do extra. And we do all those things. It’s not what we want, for sure. But we can’t do anything but do what we’re doing, and that’s work at it.”

William has to take that attitude. He has no other option, really. But in reality, the Nats defense suffers from specific physical limitations that are difficult to overcome. Only Harper and Rendon are still a young players. They don’t seem to be part of the long-term problem. But the rest?

Desmond is 28 years old. We’ve seen this for several seasons now. He has tremendous range and a strong throwing arm. His range allows him to get to balls others watch go past, but as we saw in Monday’s game, that can be a curse as much as a blessing. He ranged far to his left to get his glove on the ball, only to have it clang off for a tough error. The ball bounced off the back of the mound, changing the spin on it and making it a much tougher play than it was going to be already.

Then there’s the matter of his arm. It’s a cannon. But it’s a loose cannon. They used to call guys like that “scattershot”, like the pattern of shotgun pellets spreading out in every direction at a high rate of speed. Last season, widely hailed as his best defensive season, he committed 12 throwing and seven fielding errors. This year, it’s an equal 4-4 so far. Desmond started slowly last season in the field too, so it may be a temperature thing with him. But the bottom line is this is who he is. At 28, he’s not going to get magically better throwing the ball.

Zimmerman’s problems have been well documented, in this space and throughout the Natosphere. His shoulder is compromised through injury to the point of curtailing any pregame throwing and altering his throwing mechanics to the point of being indistinguishable form how a human is supposed to throw overhanded. His broken thumb after 15 games allowed him to be DL’d for a actual broken bone as opposed to being sat down to allow the inflammation in the join to calm down. At this point, the Nats are trying to downplay this, saying they don’t feel the injury is a chronic thing. But realistically, Zimmerman needs to move to first base as soon as possible, if only to keep the inflammation out of the joint allowing him to him at a maximum, pain-free condition.

Espinosa is a good fielder, at both second base and shortstop. He gets a touch overrated in this market considering his teammates. But his health issues the past two seasons have taken a toll on his efficiency as well. He shouldn’t be part of the long-term problem either, but two errors in 17 games isn’t a great thing. Also, he’s 27, so he’s at his physical peak and won’t get better either.

Jayson Werth doesn’t have any errors in the outfield yet, but we’ve seen several balls fall in front of him or past him that he would have gotten to even at the start of his stint with the Nats. His range has drastically dropped each season he’s been here. It’ snot surprising, as his is 35 years old and being asked to man one of the more rigorous defensive positions. But it’s another point of data: Werth’s outfield defense is sub-par at this point in his career, and there’s very little the Nats can do about it for the next 3 1/2 years other than move him to left field and hope Harper can handle right.

As for Harper’s not-so-great fielding, we have to remember two things: 1) He was a catcher 2 1/2 years ago; 2) He’s learning to play outfield at the Major League level. There may be some “attention” problems attributed to Harper’s bungles, as he mostly has trouble with charging and picking up the ball. But for all his speed and effort (notice I didn’t say “hustle”) in the outfield, he still has trouble tracking line drives, both to his right and his left. Someone on Twitter casually remarked on a ball to the left field gap earlier this week that it seemed like a ball Harper could have made a play on, or at least cut off from going to the wall. If a casual fan can notice that, you can be sure the Nats are aware of it.

This all might seem like gloom and doom. Maybe it is. It’s certainly mostly anecdotal. But the takeaway here is that the Nats realistically aren’t a great fielding team, despite their pitching staff’s proclivity for being ground ball pitchers. And except for Rendon and Harper, the players they have are no longer in a growth mode — they are who they are, or getting worse (some significantly, and some very quickly). They can put as much work into it as they want, but in reality, the Nats are going to have to pitch and hit to make up for their defensive shortcomings.

Nats Nightly for April 22: Pujols’ historic night dumps Nats 7-2

Dave Nichols of District Sports Page and Patrick Reddingtonof Federal Baseball discuss the Washington Nationals 7-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels, and Albert Pujols historic night, hitting home runs No. 499 and 500, becoming the 26th player in MLB history to reach the mark.

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Washington Nationals Game 21 Review: Pujols homers into record books and win column

Albert Pujols homered twice, including his 500th career homer – becoming just the 26th player in Major League history to reach the mark — to lead the Los Angeles Angels over the Washington Nationals 7-2 on Tuesday before 21,915 at Nationals Park.

The loss drops the Nats to 11-10 on the season.

Nats starter Taylor Jordan just didn’t have it from the start. J.B. Shuck doubled down the left field line leading off, and Mike Trout reached on an error by Anthony Rendon. Rendon bobbled the sharply hit ball, then recovered but threw wide of first. Albert Pujols then destroyed a belt high 90-MPH sinker that didn’t sink into the 10th row to straightaway left to put the Angels up 3-0 before most had settled into their seats. It was Pujols’ 499th homer of his career.

Jordan coaxed a lazy fly ball from Raul Ibanez for the first out, but Howie Kendrick smoked a double to the right field gap. Kendrick then went to third on Erick Aybar’s ground out to first. Jordan plunked David Freese, and Chris Ianetta made him pay, depositing a line drive single in front of Bryce Harper in left to plate the Angles fourth run of the inning.

The four runs represented the fifth time already this season the Nats have allowed at least three runs in the first inning and the ninth time they’ve given up two runs or more.

The Nats started chipping away at the deficit in the third. Sandy Leon doubled down the left field line and went to third on Jordan’s bunt single. Denard Span walked to load ‘em up with no outs. Skaggs uncorked a wild pitch on his first offering to Danny Espinosa and Leon chugged home with the Nats first run. Jordan then hit Espinosa in the front leg to load the bases once again. Jayson Werth then grounded into a 5-4-3 double play, but Jordan jogged home with the second run of the inning.

In the fifth inning, everyone at Nats Park got to witness history. With Trout aboard on a single, Albert Pujols crushed a fastball to the Red Porch, becoming the 26th player in MLB history to hit 500 home runs. Pujols hit his 400th at Nats Park as well, off Jordan Zimmermann on August 26, 2010. The most recent player to join the 500 Home Run Club previously was Gary Sheffield, who accomplished the feat April 17, 2009.

The Angels got another in the eighth against lefty Jerry Blevins. With one out, Erick Aybar doubled to the left field corner and stole third, though Matt Williams challenged the play and lost. Aybar then scored on David Freese’s sacrifice fly to right field.

The Nats failed to record a base hit after Jordan’s infield single in the third inning.

The two clubs face each other in the third game of the series Wednesday at 7:05 pm, with Gio Gonzalez (3-1, 2.88) hosting Jared Weaver (1-2, 4.74).

Statistically Speaking: Tyler Clippard’s Shaky Start

It’s another math light week for Statistically Speaking—you don’t need much advanced knowledge of math or statistics to realize that Washington Nationals reliever Tyler Clippard has struggled mightily out of the gate this season, coming to a crescendo in Monday’s 4-2 loss to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, where the usual reliable Clippard was on the hook for all four Angels runs. Clippard sputtering to start the season isn’t anything new, as the table of selected stats over the setup man’s first 11 appearances each year since 2011 below shows:

Year IP ERA FIP OPS BABIP Strikes RE24
2014 9.2 3.72 4.49 0.798 0.300 63.00% -4.99
2013 10.1 4.35 4.89 0.538 0.160 60.00% -1.48
2012 11 4.91 2.55 0.667 0.333 66.00% -0.80
2011 14.1 1.26 1.70 0.456 0.290 65.00% 8.09

Yes, Clippard is a notoriously slow starter; however, this season, it’s been a molasses-in-northern-Minnesota-in-January slow start. While he hasn’t been helped out by batting average on balls in play like he has historically—he owns a career .238 BABIP—he also has not helped himself out, with fielding independent pitching (FIP) nearly a run higher than his ERA, indicative of Clippard being responsible for the elevated OPS more so than any defensive miscues.

So what could explain the historically bad start by Clippard? Let’s go through some of the usual suspects that can sometimes induce performance declines and see if we can get to the heart of the matter with Clip’s shaky start.

First, let’s look at velocity; with drops in fastball velocity often come performance drops, as hitters no longer fear the velocity or the difference in velocity between the hard stuff and the offspeed stuff, so perhaps this is the culprit:

Brooksbaseball-Chart(1)

With the above chart, we find the exact opposite—Clippard’s fastball velocity has actually increased a hair in 2014, averaging 93.4 mph and maxing out at a little over 96 mph. His other most frequently thrown pitches (split-fingered fastballs are not shown due to small sample size) are also within shouting distance of one another with respect to velocity, so we can put to rest any questions over the demise of Clippards velocity, fastball or otherwise.

Thinking about all of his pitches, let’s see how he’s used each of his pitches in 2014. SL stands for slider, CH for changeup, FC for cut fastball, and FF for four-seam fastball:

TC_2014

…compared to 2013; IN indicates an intentional ball:

TC_2013

There is a slight change in how Clippard attacks hitters this season compared to 2013—he is going to his fourseamer 10% less now than last year, opting for more sliders and changeups, primarily.

More secondary offerings in place of a fastball that’s at an all-time best, velocity-wise—how well is Clippard locating, with the caveat that he is unique in that he thrives in the upper half of the strike zone with his fastball.

First, 2014:

TC 14 Loc

…compared to last year:

TC 13 Loc

By the looks of it, Clippard is just missing with his pitches, in particular, his bread and butter, the fastball and changeup. Unfortunately, just missing means missing in the strike zone. For the fastball, there isn’t as much rise in the pitch so far this year, concomitant with less drop with the changeup and the slider, which has been left up in the zone a little more this year compared to last.

Let’s finish this brief analysis with a look at Clippard’s swinging strike rate since 2011; this rate is typically above average for the righty:

Season SwStr%
2011 16.1 %
2012 10.6 %
2013 14.3 %
2014 12.8 %
Total 13.0 %

Again, nothing really screaming out as the reason for Clippard’s demise. Let’s look at the swinging strikes on 2014 broken down by pitch type for 2014:

TC SwStr

…and the same thing, looking at last year:

TC 13 SwStr

The first obvious difference is the lack of any swing-and-miss from a slider so fat in 2014; however, given the pitch isn’t used much by Clippard, this really isn’t anything of concern. However, despite the small smattering of data so far for this season, we do see that hitters aren’t chasing or missing the high fastball, just out of the zone. Hitters are also not apt to chase the changeup out of the strike zone this season, by the looks of it. Overall, we see Clippard’s ability to get hitters to chase not as strong this year, with those swings and misses just out of the zone being spit on, leading to working behind in the count more often, leading to both increased walk rates (5.6 BB/9 in 2014) and grooved pitches to get strike calls.

It’s been a discouraging start to the season for Clippard, but it appears that with a slight tweak in approach and possibly mechanics, the rough start will get smoothed out, bringing a return to the form that Nats fans have enjoyed for the last few years and the normally reliable Clippard back on track towards getting hitters to chase his pitch.

 ***

Data courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Brooks Baseball, FanGraphs, and Baseball Savant.

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