David PriceKim Klement/USA TODAY SportsDavid Price has fired 16 consecutive scoreless innings for the Rays.
ST. LOUIS -- The Tampa Bay Rays keep complicating an already wrenching decision -- by winning.

Their sweep of the Minnesota Twins over the weekend cut their deficit in the American League East to 7½ games and in the wild-card race to six games, gaps they have overcome in past seasons.

There are 10 days until the July 31 trade deadline. Ten days to mull over the trade options of their franchise pitcher, David Price. Ten days to decide whether to buy, sell or both. Ten days for other teams to try to make the same aggressive play that Oakland did when it swapped star prospect Addison Russell, among others, for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.

The Rays will factor many things into their decision as to whether to trade Price, including their place in the standings, how well they are playing, their need for prospects and Price's trade value, which gradually slides downward as he nears free agency. But one executive involved in the conversations with Tampa Bay believes that, ultimately, it's the potential buyers that will clarify the choice for the Rays with the quality of their offers.

"It all comes down to which team decides to be aggressive, the Dodgers, Cardinals or Mariners," said the rival official. "Maybe none of them will be."

Other teams are monitoring Price's situation, but some rival officials view the Dodgers, Cardinals and Mariners as the teams best positioned to make a deal. There are lots of pros and cons for each of those teams as they assess the possibilities.

For the Dodgers, here are the pros: Adding Price would increase the club's chances of winning the World Series, which is the working order from the top down.
Mark Appel and Jeff LuhnowScott Halleran/Getty ImagesThe decision to draft Mark Appel is already looking like a bad call for the Jeff Luhnow and the Astros.
Perception matters, which is why the chief justice of the Supreme Court has historically worked for unanimity in decisions, and why the loser in the presidential election gives a concession speech, to legitimize the process.

Perception is particularly important in business, when you are asking potential customers to buy your product, and buy into your product. Perception is why the St. Louis Cardinals will never substantively alter their timeless logo, and why the New York Yankees will always wear pinstripes.

But the power of perception is what the Houston Astros have ignored in their machinations, including those leading up to their failure to sign No. 1 overall pick Brady Aiken by Friday's deadline. The perception of their decisions -- in the eyes of some of their own players, players with other teams, agents and, most importantly, potential customers -- may take many years for them to overcome. Evan Drellich was right in what he wrote in late May: The Astros have an enormous perception problem.

The Astros have had an incredible opportunity, having picked at the top of the draft for three straight seasons, but time and again, they have been penny-wise and pound-foolish and damaged their brand along the way.

The Astros have their own self image, but they need to know that among players and agents, they are seen as a team that tried to strong-arm the best player in their organization, George Springer, into a team-friendly extension, and then punished Springer when he didn’t agree to a new deal by sending him to the minors, again. The fact that Springer has starred since being called up April 16 has only reinforced the perception among agents and some players that the Astros were more interested in manipulating Springer than they were about winning.

Mark Appel was at or near the top of a lot of draft boards in 2013, but some rival executives were surprised that the Astros chose to take him over third baseman Kris Bryant with the No. 1 overall pick. “Taking a position player means a lot less risk,” said one high-ranking executive.

Some decisions work out, and some don’t, but the timing of how this one is playing out could not be worse. Appel is struggling badly in the minors while Bryant is wrecking his way to the big leagues, averaging a home run every 10 at-bats, and the choice of Appel over Bryant has a chance to surpass Phil Nevin over Derek Jeter in Houston draft lore as the draft decision that turned into a disaster.

The Astros are widely viewed by rival executives as a team that tanked the 2013 season, seemingly designing a team for a degree of failure that only the 1962-65 New York Mets could rival. The Astros opened the year with a $20 million payroll, and then traded almost every player making more than $1 million. You’ve heard of too big to fail? Well, Houston had so little talent and so much inexperience that there was no chance the Astros could compete.

Not surprisingly, the team went 51-111, earning the Astros the first pick in the 2014 draft; and now, in spite of all that losing, and the summerlong string of wipeouts, they failed to sign Aiken.

Only Astros officials know for sure why they reduced their offer to Aiken, and they maintain they have done nothing wrong. The perception in a lot of corners -- including that of the players' association -- is that the Astros shifted their offers around in an effort to lock up three draft picks, and not just Aiken. Anybody with a paper and pencil can figure out that the scope of the attempted reduction for Aiken almost perfectly matches the money discussed with fifth-round pick Jacob Nix and 21st-round pick Mac Marshall.

[+] EnlargeBrady Aiken
Larry Goren/Four Seam Images/AP ImagesBrady Aiken became only the third No. 1 overall pick in the MLB draft not to sign.
The problem for the Astros -- the great miscalculation -- is built around the fact that widely respected and generally understated agent Casey Close is an adviser to both players. He knows when the proposals were altered, and by how much. He is well aware how Nix arrived with his family in Houston, prepared to sign, only to be told the agreement was null and void. The perception of that stinks. He can speak firsthand to both the Aiken and Nix families about how this played out.

It stands to reason that Aiken’s family would not take the calls of the Astros on Friday because of that perception -- about the Houston offers shifting from $6.5 million to $3.1 million to about $5 million. Or maybe the Astros couldn’t get the Aikens to take their phone calls because of how the Astros’ concern over Aiken’s ulnar collateral ligament leaked out, not long before published stories about Aiken’s college eligibility being in jeopardy. As one longtime agent said, “I stopped believing in coincidences a long time ago.”

It may be that the Astros boxed themselves in, negotiating the signing bonus with Nix while assuming that eventually Aiken would capitulate and agree to their reduced terms. It’s possible that by the last hours, they weren’t in position to give Aiken the $6.5 million initially promised because that would have ended any chance of them revitalizing the Nix deal.

But in the end, the Astros had a $5 million-ish offer on the table to Aiken, a rollback of $1.5 million over the initial agreement, which tells us that while they still had concerns about Aiken’s medicals, the UCL issue was hardly a deal-breaker. At some moment in this process, the Astros should’ve stopped obsessing over the numbers and instead taken a step back and assessed the potential for damage to the perception of the organization if the worst-case scenario happened, that Aiken and Nix failed to sign.

This is because the fallout from that outcome could linger for years, hanging over the team like a radioactive cloud. For the sake of $1.5 million.

If the Astros could have navigated their way out of the Aiken mess somewhere along the way -- before their concerns about his medicals leaked out -- the savings in how they’re perceived, the protection of their brand, would’ve been worth a whole lot more than $1.5 million.

The surcharge for their recent actions is already in place, and figures to cost them even more going into the future. Last winter, Scott Kazmir -- a Houston native -- opted to sign a two-year deal with the Oakland Athletics instead of following up on the Astros’ overtures.

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Yasiel PuigAdam Hunger/USA TODAY SportsThe average MLB game in 2014 has 15.4 strikeouts, the most in the history of the sport.
Brady Anderson swung as hard as he possibly could throughout the 1996 season and blasted 50 homers. He swung hard on the first pitch, he swung aggressively when the count was 0-2, he swung aggressively always.

He scored 117 runs and compiled 92 extra-base hits, 76 walks and 106 strikeouts, and late that season, Orioles hitting coach Rick Down mentioned that before Anderson, he had never seen anyone succeed with that approach. Most hitters made adjustments according to the count, Down noted at the time, cutting down on their swing when they reached two strikes, protecting against a strikeout.

But more and more, that sort of thinking has become outdated, and a whole lot of hitters are thinking like Anderson did. Swing hard throughout the entire count. Look to damage throughout the entire count.

The problem for them -- and for baseball, really -- is that this approach is not really working.

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David PriceBrian Blanco/Getty ImagesMany teams would love to trade for David Price, but few teams have the top prospects to do so.
Executives with some teams have not gotten a sense of urgency from the Tampa Bay Rays yet. They say David Price has not been pushed yet. Some other clubs haven't received a final call for a last, best offer.

"But they're preparing," one AL official said recently. "I don't think there's any question about that."

What that entails is identifying the young players who would become targets in other organizations if the Rays decide to move the All-Star left-hander, as they did before sending Matt Garza to the Chicago Cubs -- and getting a young pitcher named Chris Archer as part of the package -- and James Shields to the Kansas City Royals as the centerpiece of a deal for Wil Myers.

Rival officials continue to believe that the Rays won't have a lot of palatable choices when they do decide to trade Price, whether it's in the next 14 days or after the season. "It's a specialized market," one executive said. "I don't think a lot of teams have the kind of prospects they would require, and on top of that, how many teams can absorb a $20 million-plus salary for next year?"

Price is making $14 million this year and will be eligible for arbitration over the winter, before becoming eligible for free agency in the fall of 2015. He'll be in line for a record-setting award if he doesn't negotiate a deal before then.

It does not help the Rays that it appears a lot of the big-market teams don't appear to be in play.

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Adam WainwrightElsa/Getty ImagesAdam Wainwright admitted to giving Derek Jeter "a couple of pipe shots" during the All-Star Game.
Adam Wainwright is earnest and honest and yes, he probably revealed a little more than he intended to about that pitch that he threw to Derek Jeter. But let’s put this into context. The tradition of pitchers working to provide a moment for a hitter goes back way beyond the first time the All-Star Game was played, and Wainwright is only different because he acknowledged what everybody already knew, when viewers could react in real time on social media.

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Oakland AthleticsAP Photo/Tony AvelarThe first-place Oakland Athletics should do plenty more celebrating in the second half.
On July 23, 2013, the Cleveland Indians were 52-48 and slogging along. But what they had in front of them was opportunity, as noted then, in the form of one of the easiest second-half schedules in the big leagues. They proceeded to take full advantage of it and made the playoffs.

With that in mind, what follows is how the second-half schedules stack up in 2014. These notes are based on records going into Sunday's play, and the contenders are ranked from the toughest schedule to the easiest.

1. (most difficult second-half schedule): Baltimore Orioles
Home/away: 32 games at home; 36 on the road.
Games against teams with records of .500 or better: 42
Schedule notes: With the rest of the division something of a mess, the Orioles appear to have a great opportunity to win the AL East. But they will be challenged right out of the All-Star break: 10 straight games against the AL West beasts, beginning with Oakland, then the Angels and Mariners. Then, as a topper, they go back home and play the Angels and Mariners again, followed by a makeup game in Washington. In fact, Baltimore's first 26 games after the All-Star break -- yes, that's twenty-six -- are against teams with records of .500 or better. Brutal.
Big finish:

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Masahiro Tanaka and Matt WietersAP Images, Icon SMIMasahiro Tanaka and Matt Wieters are both out with injuries that previously could have been treated differently.

BALTIMORE -- In his last start before Masahiro Tanaka landed on the disabled list, his average fastball velocity was 92.1 mph. He pitched 6 2/3 innings and allowed five runs. As the Yankees learned two days later, following an MRI and three doctor consultations, Tanaka had been broken in that last start against the Indians, with a small tear in an elbow ligament. But he was also still functional, like a car with a faulty fuel pump.

Now he'll be shut down for at least six weeks, and if his condition doesn't improve, he could have elbow reconstruction surgery.

Two weeks into the season, it was apparent that Matt Wieters was having some sort of arm trouble, particularly evident in his struggle to throw the ball to second base. Wieters was still playing effectively, hitting over .300 with five homers in his first 26 games. He was functional, but broken, and after weeks of treatment while he was on the disabled list, he had Tommy John surgery.

As Major League Baseball searches for answers about why so many players have been shut down in 2014, in comparison to past seasons, one of the reasons

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Ruben Amaro Jr. AP Images/Matt SlocumPhillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has at least four high-priced players who could help contenders.
Philadelphia Phillies fans aren't happy, and they're expressing that through the ticket office: The team's attendance has plummeted, from an incredible (and unsustainable) 44,021 per game just two years ago to the current 30,438 per game. That's a 31 percent drop-off.

The fans saw the Phillies win the World Series in 2008 and field the best regular-season team in 2011, but then the team fell back to .500 in 2012 and won just 73 games last season.

At the current pace, Philadelphia will win just 72 games this season, which is an extraordinary failure, given the amount of money the team has invested. With the problems of the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees and the Phillies -- three teams with massive payrolls -- 2014 is shaping up to be like a baseball version of the banking industry. Too big to fail, indeed.

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Masahiro TanakaAP Photo/Julie JacobsonMasahiro Tanaka's total of 12 wins this season is tied for the major league lead.
Editor's Note: This blog has been updated to reflect official injury news regarding Masahiro Tanaka, released Thursday evening.

Somebody wearing a uniform undoubtedly uttered the words "I told you so" on Wednesday night after news of Tanaka's elbow issue spread across the majors, and it's very possible that this was a four-word refrain in a lot of clubhouses. That four-word refrain would only be repeated on Thursday night when the league learned that Tanaka had a partial UCL tear in his elbow, an injury that often leads to Tommy John surgery. That's because over the first two months of this season, even as Tanaka dominated hitters and earned the respect of opponents, there was a feeling among many players on other teams that it was only a matter of time before he broke down.

That opinion was not based on his daunting accumulation of pitches in Japan, where he threw 160 pitches in a start last fall before pitching in relief the next day. Rather, opposing hitters and pitchers and coaches and managers watched him throw splitter after splitter after splitter at high velocity, and they reached the conclusion that he was destined for surgery.

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SamardzijaAP Photo/Ben MargotOakland acquired right-hander Jeff Samardzija from the Cubs last week.
The Oakland Athletics are on a pace to win 102 games and their third consecutive AL West title. But they need only 17 more wins to extend another streak that might be even more remarkable: The number of consecutive seasons in which they have won at least 74 games.

The last year they posted fewer than that, Jose Canseco was their designated hitter, Scott Brosius was their third baseman and they had just started to install a young infielder named Miguel Tejada into their everyday lineup. It was 1997, and Oakland finished that season with 65 wins and 97 losses.

Year after year since, the Athletics have ranked near the bottom of the majors in payroll, given the constraints of their market, and yet year after year, they have tried to win. There is something to be said for that.

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CC SabathiaAl Bello/Getty ImagesCC Sabathia might be worth more to the Yankees if he doesn't return.
David Ortiz recently recalled a time when CC Sabathia drilled him intentionally. There was nothing to do but drop the bat and jog to first base, Ortiz said, because Sabathia has so much credibility and accountability that if he hit you on purpose, well, there was no question that it meant circumstances compelled him to do so.

No one in Cleveland will forget Sabathia’s time with the Indians, when he had great successes and took the blame for his failures. In Milwaukee, they will always remember how, with his free agency looming, he repeatedly took the ball on three days’ rest. After retiring, he will forever be invited back to Yankee Stadium for Old-Timers’ Day and be introduced as a leader of the team that won the 2009 World Series.

Sabathia has won many admirers among players and fans during a career that includes 208 victories, nearly 3,000 innings and a Cy Young Award. But the simple fact is that, moving forward, he might be worth more to the Yankees if he never comes back from the knee trouble that is likely to end his 2014 season.

This is because of the regression in his performance, with a 5.28 ERA in eight starts this season after posting a 6.08 ERA in the second half of 2013, and his contract. Sabathia is set to earn $23 million in 2015, under the terms of the deal he signed with the Yankees after the 2008 season, and $25 million in 2016, given the mini-extension he got in the fall of 2011 because of an opt-out clause in his deal. In addition, Sabathia has a $25 million vesting option for 2017, with a $5 million buyout, that kicks in under three conditions during the 2016 season built in because of concerns about his shoulder.

A) That the season does not end with him on the disabled list because of a shoulder condition
B) That he does not spend more than 45 days on the disabled list because of a shoulder injury
C) That he does not make more than six relief appearances because of a shoulder problem

At most, the Yankees could owe Sabathia $73 million over the 2015 to 2017 seasons. At the very least, they will have to pay him $53 million, in salary and the $5 million buyout.
[+] Enlarge CC Sabathia
Jared Wickerham/Getty ImagesSabathia's days as a big-game pitcher are over, and maybe his career is too.


Sabathia is facing the possibility of microfracture surgery on his knee, and as doctors, Grady Sizemore and many other athletes will tell you, this is no sure thing. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. In Sabathia’s case, even if his knee is OK, it will still be uncertain that he could actually come back and be effective. His fastball velocity has dropped significantly in recent seasons, from 94.1 mph in 2009 to 89.6 in 2014.

The Yankees have insurance on Sabathia’s deal, a record-setting contract at the time when he agreed to seven years, $161 million. Whether the policy covers 50 percent or more, their potential for savings could be substantial if Sabathia never pitches again.

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David PriceAP Photo/Kathy WillensDavid Price is at the apex of his career, but may be switching uniforms before the end of 2014.
DETROIT -- David Price's focus is on doing the best he can for the Tampa Bay Rays, he said here Saturday. But every day, there are reminders that he could be in his last hours with Tampa Bay.

Players on other teams text him daily to ask whether he’s heard anything about an impending trade. Sometimes, they’ll be more direct, as Detroit reliever Joba Chamberlain was Saturday, in approaching Price on the field to chat about the constant rumors.

Price’s answer is consistent: He doesn’t know anything. He doesn’t have a special pipeline into the trade talks the Rays have had. He starts against the Detroit Tigers on "Sunday Night Baseball" (8 ET, ESPN and WatchESPN) believing that he is throwing the ball as well as he has at any point in his career, but not knowing whether this might be his last start for the Rays, or the first of another four months’ worth of starts for them.

The folks he works for -- most notably, GM Andrew Friedman -- probably don’t know the answer, either. The Rays have won nine of their past 11 games, and have crawled back to within 8.5 games of first place in the American League East. Close enough for hope, but far enough away for the Rays to strongly consider trading the former Cy Young winner.

Price’s situation probably gained some clarity with the trade of Jeff Samardzija, who was the other big-time starter available on the market. That deal firmly established an acceptable asking price for David Price.

A lot of folks in the industry believe that the Oakland Athletics paid heavily for Samardzija and Jason Hammel, surrendering superstar prospect Addison Russell as well as former No. 1 pick Billy McKinney. Friedman can now use that deal as a way to shape any proposals for Price, because while rival officials were well aware that Samardzija has thrown about 6,500 fewer pitches than Price, Price is still widely regarded as the better pitcher, having had his success in the AL East.

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Johnny CuetoAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesReds starter Johnny Cueto is just one of 27 pitchers with an ERA under 3.00.
The topic of parity came up Thursday on "Baseball Tonight," and Rick Sutcliffe mentioned how the sport has changed over the last decade, in the wake of the steroid era.

Many, many pitchers have used performance-enhancing drugs, for sure, but the simple fact is that since Major League Baseball adopted testing, offensive numbers have been in sharp decline. There is also less opportunity for hitters -- and, by extension, teams -- to distinguish themselves. The potential variance between clubs has declined.

The same sort of thing happened in the latter half of the 1960s, as pitching increasingly dominated. In 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, none of the 10 National League teams won less than 72 games, and only one team won more than 88 -- the St. Louis Cardinals, who finished 97-65. Every team averaged between 2.9 runs per game and 4.2 runs per game.

There was a greater range of performance in the American League in 1968, with the Tigers posting a record of 103-59. But every team averaged between 2.9 and 4.1 runs per game that year, and in the season before, 1967, the AL saw an incredible race because of the parity in another season of few runs. Boston led the AL with 92 wins, while Detroit and Minnesota won 91, the White Sox 89, the Angels 84. The Kansas City Athletics were the only AL team to win fewer than 72 games.

Baseball altered the rules in response to the decline in offense, lowering the mound, and if Major League Baseball wants something other than general parity and games with fewer runs, it will probably have to revisit this -- perhaps lowering the mound again, or changing the composition of the ball.

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Kershaw-KoufaxAP Photo/ Getty ImagesClayton Kershaw's performance in the past month-plus has been downright Sandy Koufax-like.
If you're too young to know what Sandy Koufax's excellence looked like in 1965, watch Clayton Kershaw now.

If you need a reminder about how dominant Orel Hershiser was in September and October of 1988, watch Kershaw now.

Or if you're looking for a refresher on how Pedro Martinez controlled games in 1999, when a future Hall of Famer was at his absolute zenith, watch Kershaw now.

Kershaw is a historically great pitcher throwing better than he has at any stage of his career. He carries a streak of 28 consecutive scoreless innings into his start Friday against the Rockies, and he's coming off one of the best months of pitching ever. Kershaw faced 162 hitters in June, and he struck out 61 of them, with only four bases on balls. Of the remaining 97, 65 percent of them (63 batters) hit the ball on the ground, the highest rate for any pitcher in the majors. In other words, in Kershaw's six June starts, 34 plate appearances resulted in a batter hitting a ball in the air.

A.J. Ellis, Kershaw's catcher, traces the left-hander's current performance back to a start he made against the Diamondbacks on May 17, when he allowed seven runs in 1 2/3 innings. Most of the damage done in that game, Ellis noted, was against breaking pitches, and Kershaw came out of that performance angry and determined to throw his curveball and slider better.

With the way he's throwing his slider and curve now, Ellis said, "they look like they're strikes forever, and then bottom out."

Hitters cannot cover every possibility, so they work to reduce the ways in which a pitcher can beat them. They look for a fastball and ignore a pitcher's inconsistent breaking ball, for example. Or maybe they look on the inner half of the plate because the pitcher lacks command on the outer half. They try to corner the pitcher.

But these days, Kershaw is commanding three pitches brilliantly, meaning that the hitters' quandary grows exponentially against Kershaw, as Ellis explained.

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videoBryce Harper returned to the Nationals with an attitude, writes Thomas Boswell. From his column:
Instead of "Nothing But Natitude," Harper's box could've read, "Nothing But Attitude." The 21-year-old exposed the fissures that have gotten more public between the young star and the Nats. Being back in the Nats' lineup after two months wasn't enough for Harper; he wanted to write the lineup, too.

Manager Matt Williams put Ryan Zimmerman at third base, Anthony Rendon at second base, Harper in left field and benched Danny Espinosa. He also batted Harper sixth, exiled from the glamorous heart-of-the-order spots. Harper disagreed, on all fronts, and said so several hours before the game.

"I think [Zimmerman] should be playing left. Rendon's a good third baseman. He should be playing third. We've got one of the best second basemen in the league in Danny Espinosa," said Harper. "Of course, we want the best-hitting lineup in there. [But] I think Rendon playing third and Zim playing left is something that would be good for this team. I think that should be what's happening."

This Harper proposal would also put Denard Span on the bench and Harper himself in center field, the position he's politicked for weeks to play.

Williams has talked about daily designer lineups, constantly changing. Harper's suggestion amounts to a fixed lineup -- to his advantage. If Harper were 10 years more established in deeds, not dolls, it'd be audacious to manage a team after being on the DL for more than half of the Nats' previous 193 games. But to do it with one homer halfway into a season?

Anything else? How are those internal lines of communication working?

"I haven't talked to nobody about anything, so I have no clue," said Harper, who frequently mentioned how happy and excited he was to return but never smiled. "I know I'm playing left tonight, via Twitter. So I guess that's where I'm going."

And what about batting sixth?

"I'm in the lineup. That's all that matters. If I had the lineup, it would maybe not be the same. He's got the lineup card. He's got the pen. That's what he's doing," said Harper. "So there's nothing I can do about it. I'm hitting sixth tonight."

So, the manager has three players out of position, the wrong guy benched, Harper batting in the wrong spot and he has to learn about this stuff on Twitter.

"Hopefully, nobody kills themselves trying to get a bobblehead," said Harper, who knows just how central Nationals marketers have made him to the franchise's merchandising identity.

I cannot recall an example of a young major league player doing anything like this.

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