Busted! Pineda ejected for pine tar

Home plate umpire Gerry Davis ejects New York Yankees starting pitcher Michael Pineda after a foreign substance was discovered on his neck in the second inning of the Yankees' baseball game against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park in Boston, Wednesday, April 23, 2014. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Yankees starting pitcher Michael Pineda obviously didn’t learn his lesson.

Pineda, who was caught by television cameras with pine tar on his hand in an April 10 start against the Red Sox, was nabbed for real this time.

Wednesday night, Pineda applied some pine tar to the back of his neck between innings. Red Sox players and coaches caught it, tipped off the umpires and Pineda was subject to a search of his person on the mound. Home plate umpire Gerry Davis checked his glove and cap and then touched the side of his neck. He immediately signaled for Pineda’s ejection.

There is no set suspension rule for players ejected for using foreign substances. MLB officials will meet tomorrow, but I would imagine that Pineda faces some sort of fine/suspension threat soon, as this wasn’t a brand-new thing for him. Even though Pineda didn’t get caught by the umps earlier this month, it was a huge story, so the fact that he’d try to do it again doesn’t bode well for his defense.

Pineda lasted just 1 2/3 innings before the ejection. The last thing the Yankees needed was the burn through the entire bullpen in the second game of a key AL East series on the road. It’s the top of the ninth and the Yankees are losing 5-1 as I write this, so they’ll probably always wonder how things would have unfolded if Pineda stays in the game longer.

Obviously, Pineda probably wouldn’t need a full four days of rest after that short outing, but with a looming suspension, I’m not sure how the Yankees would use him on Thursday or over the weekend at this point.

After the April 10 start, foreign substances became a significant talking point in baseball, at least for a few days. The big takeaway was that 1) everybody – well, most everybody – does it, even if they don’t admit it. 2) Using pine tar or sunscreen or shaving cream is just for the pitchers to get a better grip on the ball, not so that they can alter the flight of the ball in any significant way. Not like Gaylord Perry, for example. 3) that better grip for pitchers leads to fewer batters being hit by pitches, which makes the game safer.

The idea was, everyone does it, they do it for grip, hitters are safer, so let’s just leave it at that. An unspoken part of the game.

Well, Pineda didn’t take the hint that if he was going to use pine tar for a better grip he needed to get better at hiding it. The smudge on the back of his neck was pretty obvious on the television screen and it must have been clear enough to Red Sox players and coaches – or staff watching on TV – that they should ask the umpire to check. They did, knocked Pineda out of the game and picked up a 5-1 win in the process.

Like it or not, this will likely follow Pineda for the rest of his career. Every time he’s dealing, the opposing manager might go out to the umpires and asked to have him checked. No penalty for the opposing manager, just an opportunity to rattle Pineda, even if he’s dealing without any foreign substances. There’s no doubt that the rest of the Yankees’ staff will also be scrutinized, as Joe Girardi and crew take some blame as they allowed this to happen again.

It’s just a guy trying to get a better grip on a chilly evening, but it’s also a big distraction for a Yankees team that’s poised for a season-long battle in the AL East.

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Nova recommended for surgery

New York Yankees starting pitcher Ivan Nova reacts after allowing a solo home run in a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium in New York, Sunday, April 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Ivan Nova, diagnosed with a partial tear of the UCL in his throwing elbow after a disastrous start at Tampa Bay over the weekend, has been recommended for Tommy John surgery, the Yankees announced Tuesday.

This news comes as no surprise, as most young pitchers who suffer a torn UCL opt for surgery. It is possible to rehab from the injury without surgery, but its often older pitchers who go that route.

The typical rehab time for TJ surgery is 12-18 months, so if Nova has the surgery sometime this month you could expect him back in a Yankees uniform sometime after the 2015 All-Star game, give or take.

It’s a blow to the Yankees’ rotation, as Nova had been a big part of the club’s pitching staff over the last three seasons. Still, as many games as Nova had won, his peripheral stats were never that great. He was often the beneficiary of huge run support, which helped him win games in which he had given up four or five runs himself.

Assuming Nova goes for TJ surgery, which sounds likely at this point, he’ll become the 21st major league pitcher to go for that in 2014.

Tom Verducci, who has been documenting pitcher injuries at Sports Illustrated for years, had an interesting piece on April 15. Click here to read the whole thing.

  • A couple of takeaways from that story.
  • Nova would be just the second Latin pitcher out of that group of 21 to go for Tommy John. Detroit’s Bruce Rondon was the other. Verducci’s point in the article is that U.S.-born kids grow up in a culture of year-round baseball, either through Little League, school or travel teams, and those who rise to the top of the youth level are paraded around at showcase events in front of college coaches and scouts, where velocity is key. So young players are never really giving their arms any rest and they’re also squeezing in bullpen sessions in front of talent evaluators, throwing as hard as possible to light up the radar guns so that they’re noticed. This is, Verducci says, a big reasons why those elbows are stressed and ultimately snap or fray.
  • He uses a rubber band analogy to explain this idea. Take a rubber band and really stretch it out, just short of the point of breaking, a few times. You’ll see little tears along the edges of the rubber band. But take that same rubber band and pull on it lightly 50 times, 100 times, and it will look good as new. Take a rubber band with a few little tears in it and tug on it lightly 100 times and it’s likely to break eventually. That’s the idea. These young pitchers go and ramp things up a few special times a year a showcase events and wind up paying the price down the road, breaking down during the spring, summer or fall seasons.
  • TJ surgeries are also on the rise. Dr. James Andrews performed just a handful of TJ surgeries on youth players in 1998. Five years later, the number was higher. Today, even higher yet. You can see that by looking at the first round of the MLB draft. Of high school pitchers taken in the first 30 picks from 2002-09, five of the 39 players in that category went for Tommy John. From 2010-12, a pool of just 15 pitches, five have already undergone TJ surgery.

I think it’s fair to say that UCL tears and Tommy John surgery have become epidemic in baseball. Here’s the definition: “a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time.” Take out the infectious disease part…and it’s certainly widespread in a community.

The question is, is this bad for baseball? Obviously, no one wants to see kids get hurt if we can help it. But if the TJ epidemic is really just about overuse and kids ramping up the velocity before their bodies are ready for it, how do we solve that problem?

That starts with Major League Baseball itself. First round draft picks get a small fortune in bonus money. There isn’t a ton of money in college baseball scholarships, as schools get just 11.7 scholarships per team. That means hardly anyone gets a full ride to play college baseball, just a fraction of the worth of those 11.7 scholarships distributed among 25-30 players. Anyway, it’s still something parents and kids want to chase en route to their dream of a job in the big leagues.

And if that’s the incentive – millions of dollars of guaranteed money, either through the draft or a big league career – and if the system pits teenagers against each other in these showcase events, where the radar gun is the determining factor in scouts and coaches saying yes or passing, I don’t see how this problem goes away anytime soon. Sure, there are some great high school coaches and youth coaches across the country who are looking out for kids, monitoring their pitch counts and using the knowledge at their disposal to keep these young arms healthy. But if the parents and the kids themselves are chasing the dollar signs set up by the MLB and the NCAA, I don’t see how they’ll be able to hold back, knowing that their competition probably won’t.

I don’t know what the solution is – deferring some of that bonus money, adding clauses for health, at least on certain types of injuries – but unless MLB does something soon, this problem is likely only to get worse.

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Yankees-Red Sox series preview; Harvey deletes Twitter

The Yankees will take on the Red Sox tonight in the first game of a 3-game series at Fenway Park. At 11-8, the Yankees hold a one-game lead over Toronto for first place in the AL East. Baltimore is 1 1/2 games back, Tampa Bay two games off the pace and Boston in the cellar at 9-11, 2 1/2 games back.

Obviously, it’s way too early to start thinking about the standings seriously, but the Yankees can at least give themselves some extra cushion over Boston with a series win here.

Here are the pitching matchups.

Tuesday

Masahrio Tanaka (2-0, 2.05 ERA) vs. Jon Lester (2-2, 2.17)

Wednesday

Michael Pineda (2-1, 1.00) vs. John Lackey (2-2, 5.25)

Thursday

CC Sabathia (2-2, 5.19) vs. Felix Doubront (1-2, 5.48)

Tanaka has been as advertised, coming off a tremendous 24-0 season in Japan in 2013. His best pitch has been the splitter, which has drawn rave reviews from the Yankees catchers and some baffled praise from opposing hitters.

He’s getting tons of swings-and-misses, which is keeping runners off the basepaths and leading to some gaudy strikeout totals for Tanaka.

Of his pitches in the strike zone this month, 8.79 percent have garnered whiffs. Out of the zone, he’s getting a 20.87 percent swing-and-miss rate, thanks in large part to the splitter falling low out of the strike zone. In all, he’s thrown 72 splitters and had hitters miss at 38.9 percent of those.

Masahiro Tanaka pitch usage chart, 4/1 to 4/21/14, via BrooksBaseball.net

You can see that Tanaka likes to go to the splitter when he’s ahead in the count, particularly with two strikes. He’ll also use a slider against righties and his sinker against lefties, both of those pitches breaking away from the hitter.

It should be a great matchup tonight, as Tanaka squares off against Boston’s Jon Lester, who is having a great season. It will be interesting to see what Lester does the rest of the year. Lester, entering the final year of his contract, received a lowball extension offer during the offseason, four years and something between $70 and 80 million. The way he’s pitching, he could probably get something closer to $125-150 million on the free market over a longer term deal. I doubt the Indians could afford that price, but I wonder if Lester would have interest in a reunion with former Red Sox manager Terry Francona in Cleveland.

We’ll see how hitters start to adjust to Tanaka over time. As he builds up a reputation and a track record here in the majors, opposing hitting coaches might find ways to put their hitters in better spots against him. Then again, if that splitter really is a special pitch, Tanaka just mind find a way to keep missing bats all year long. And with Ivan Nova likely headed for Tommy John surgery, Tanaka becoming an ace will really help the Yankees’ pitching situation.

There will be a new face, well an old face back again, in the Yankees’ bullpen tonight, as David Robertson has returned from the DL. He had missed the last 15 days with a strained groin.

Preston Claiborne has also rejoined the team as the Yankees continue to shuffle the back end of the bullpen around. Dellin Betances, Shawn Kelley, Matt Thornton, David Phelps and Adam Warren have all pitched relatively well so far this season. With Robertson back, perhaps this is the bullpen the Yankees will stick with for now.

As for the Mets, the buzz surrounding a 2-0 win over the Cardinals at Citi Field didn’t last long.

New York Mets starting pitcher Jenrry Mejia (58) reacts coming off the mound after New York Mets manager Terry Collins replaced him after Mejia allowed two walks in the seventh inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals in New York, Monday, April 21, 2014. Mejia pitched sixth and two-thirds innings, allowing four hits, three walks and striking out seven batters. AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Injured starting pitcher Matt Harvey, who celebrated his six month anniversary of Tommy John surgery today, took to Twitter with a picture. It showed him in a hospital bed, giving the camera the middle finger.

The Mets immediately asked Harvey to take down the photo. Instead, Harvey deleted his entire Twitter account.

Sigh.

Harvey, of course, stole some headlines during spring training when he complained about having to spend his entire rehab time at the Mets’ facility in Port St. Lucie, Fla. He argued that he wanted to rehab in New York instead. Harvey, a big New York Rangers fan, probably wanted to catch some playoff hockey games, hang out with his fashion model pals and be around his Mets teammates at Citi Field. The Mets came up with a compromise, where Harvey could stay in New York when the team was at home and head to Port St. Lucie when the Mets are on the road.

But that wasn’t the end of the controversy. Then came the Twitter photo.

It’s all pretty stupid and pointless, but perhaps now Harvey will just rehab in peace and quiet. Unless the Rangers advance a few rounds in the playoffs…and he skips a Mets home game to go watch hockey at MSG…

Another game, another great performance by Mets pitchers. Jenrry Mejia struck out seven, walked three and allowed three hits over 6 2/3 innings last night. Scot Rice and Carlos Torres got two outs apiece and new closer Kyle Farnsworth gave up a leadoff single to Yadier Molina but immediately got a ground ball double play to pick up the save.

David Wright and Travis d’Arnaud had RBI singles for the Mets.

In the Ike Davis watch, the Pirates’ new first baseman went 2-for-4 with a grand slam in a 6-5 Pittsburgh win over Cincinnati. He’s 5-for-13 four RBI and four runs scored in three games with the Buccos so far.

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Yankees’ rotation takes a hit; Mets salvage ATL series in extras

New York Yankees starting pitcher Ivan Nova is visited on the mound by infielders and manager Joe Girardi during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays Saturday, April 19, 2014, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson)

The Yankees’ starting rotation suffered a major blow over the weekend, as an MRI revealed a partially torn UCL in the throwing elbow of Ivan Nova. Nova said he felt a little “pop” in his elbow during his start on Saturday, a 16-1 loss to the Rays.

For the time being, Nova will be placed on the DL. It’s possible to rehab from an injury like this and avoid Tommy John surgery, but most pitchers with UCL problems ultimately go for TJ before long. If that’s the case, you can count out Nova for at least 12 months, which is the general time it takes pitchers to rehab as  they recover after the surgery.

Nova, 27, is still young, so I’d bet that the Yankees probably encourage that he get the surgery and hope they can get something out of him in 2015 and 2016 in the lead-up to free agency.

Over the past three seasons, Nova has been a perfectly capable No. 4-type starter. He’s won a lot of games, going 40-22 in his 93 career appearances, 86 of which were starts. Of course, that’s largely attributable to the Yankees’ offense beating up on opposing No. 4 and 5 starters. Nova has a career ERA of 4.20, giving up more than one hit per inning, one home run per nine innings and a strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.25) that isn’t terrible, but isn’t all that remarkable, either.

While Nova had plenty of promise, his loss won’t be a crippling blow to the Yankees’ postseason chances, as they have plenty of internal options to use for now. Vidal Nuno is the most likely candidate to take Nova’s spot in the starting rotation. Nuno pitched well in limited big league duty last year and impressed in spring training, enough to earn a role in the bullpen as a long reliever. Once he gets stretched out and back on track in a 5-man rotation, I would expect Nuno to put up numbers similar to Nova’s over the course of a full season. Nothing spectacular, but good enough to get the job done, especially if the Yankees’ offense can rake against his counterparts.

Other options include Adam Warren and David Phelps, but both of those pitchers have seemed to find a role in the Yankees’ bullpen this year. Moving them to the rotation just opens up a hole in the bullpen, so I’d probably leave those guys where they are right now and hope that they continue to pitch well in relief.

In Triple-A, former Yankee Alfredo Aceves could be an option, but he’s never been a regular starter in the big leagues. He could make sense as a piggyback option for Nuno, however. Bruce Billings, Caleb Cotham, Brian Gordon and Chase Whitely round out the Triple-A rotation, but none of those pitchers are on the 40-man roster. Presumably, if Nova lands on the 60-day DL, that would open up a 40-man spot. The hard-throwing Bryan Mitchell, who was briefly on the Yankees’ active roster but did not make any appearances, could be one to watch later in the season. He’s had serious command problems, so I think the Yankees would like him to sort those out in the minors before he’s given a chance to start.

Of course, the Yankees might kick the tires on the starting pitcher trade market in July. With two wild cards in each league, the market will be smaller, as more teams think they’re contenders deeper into the season.

Nova’s injury is certainly a disappointment, as 2014 figured to be some sort of make-or-break year for him. Was he going to factor into the Yankees’ future plans or was he destined to be just a mediocre No. 4 starter for the rest of his career? Well, after allowing 19 earned runs in 20 2/3 innings, the Nova question will likely get put on hold for at least a year.

All that said, the Yankees managed to split a 4-game weekend series in Tampa and will carry an 11-8 record into a series at Fenway Park beginning Tuesday.

After losing two games to the Braves in crushing fashion on Friday and Saturday, the Mets bounced back on Sunday thanks to the bullpen.

Zack Wheeler struck out six and allowed three runs over six innings and the Mets tied the score at 3-3 in the bottom of the sixth. The Mets’ beleaguered bullpen responded with – get this – eight scoreless innings and a Curtis Granderson flyball won it in the bottom of the 14th.

Daisuke Matsuzaka struck out five over three scoreless frames in extras and Jose Valverde pitched the top of the 14th to keep it a 3-3 game.

The win keeps the Mets at .500, 9-9 through 18 games. Atlanta is in front in the NL East at 12-6.

In roster move news, the Mets have sent outfielder Andrew Brown to Triple-A Las Vegas and called up former Phillies and Yankees star Bobby Abreu.

With Juan Lagares on the DL, Abreu will provide another left-handed bat, but it remains to be seen how much time he’ll see in the field. Abreu, 40, might be better suited as a late-inning pinch-hitter than an everyday option in the outfield. Abreu last played in the majors in 2012, splitting time between the Angels and Dodgers. His last good season was 2009, when he .293 with 15 homers and 103 RBI, finishing 12th in the AL MVP voting.

Abreu’s mix of power, speed and durability made him one of the best outfielders in the NL during his heyday with the Phillies, but at age 40, most of that power and all but every bit of his speed has disappeared. It’s a bit mystifying to think why the Mets took a gamble on him in spring training after he failed to catch on with the Phillies, even after a strong spring training. Perhaps he’ll help some of the Mets’ young players learn a thing or two, but I doubt if he’ll contribute much to the club this season.

New York Mets' Curtis Granderson strikes out during the third inning of a baseball game against the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday, April 14, 2014, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

One has to wonder if Abreu winds up stealing any playing time from Curtis Granderson, who’s off to a dreadful start in Queens despite his extra inning heroics on Sunday.

Granderson, through 63 at-bats in 17 games: 8 hits (4 doubles and 1 home run), 5 runs scored, 5 RBI, 2 SB, 8 walks and 20 strikeouts.

So even if you count his plate appearances (72), Granderson is striking out 27.78 percent of the time. That’s putting him on pace for 191 strikeouts this season.

Personally, I don’t think strikeouts are the worst thing in the world. Consider a spot where Granderson comes up with a runner on first and fewer than two out. I’d rather have him strike out trying to hit a home run than have him hit into a double play just trying to make contact.

But the strikeouts certainly are disconcerting from the fan’s perspective. As is the fact that he has just three singles through 17 games.

It’s a rough way for Granderson to get accustomed to the Mets’ fanbase. By all accounts, he’s a positive force in the clubhouse and is active in the players’ association and in charitable endeavors outside baseball. But with each passing whiff, he’s finding himself deeper and deeper in the doghouse.

Abreu, who’s always had a reputation as a patient and selective hitter, might be able to get through to Granderson or at least drive Granderson into playing better by cutting into his playing time.

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Mets and Pirates reportedly close to Ike Davis deal

New York Mets' Ike Davis takes off his helmet after he flied out during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels on Saturday, April 12, 2014, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Word has broken on Twitter from a number of sources that the Mets and Pirates have agreed to a trade that would send the first baseman to Pittsburgh.

The exact terms of the deal, including what players the Mets would receive in return, as well as any other players headed to Pittsburgh, have yet to be released.

Davis has been in the doghouse in New York for quite some time. He essentially lost the first base job to Lucas Duda earlier this season and since the Mets have an overabundance of players at that position, Davis has become expendable.

In 2010, Davis burst onto the scene with a .264 average, 19 home runs and 71 RBI and a .351 on-base percentage. Davis was hobbled with an ankle injury for most of 2011 and played in just 36 games. He bounced back to hit 32 home runs and drive in 90 runs in 2012, but his average dipped to .227 and his on-base percentage dropped to .308. It was a tale of two halves that year, as he struggled mightily pre All-Star break but looked like a different player in the second half. Last season, Davis again got off to a cold start, was optioned to Triple-A for a spell and finished with a .205 average, nine homers and 33 RBI in 103 games.

The Mets were looking to trade Davis during the offseason, but they couldn’t find any suitors. Pittsburgh had always been at the top of the list of teams reportedly interested in Davis’ services. The Pirates could use the left-handed power bat, who’d be a significant upgrade over Travis Ishakawa.

Dominic Smith, a left-handed hitting first baseman, was the Mets’ top pick in the 2013 draft. He figures to be the Mets’ first baseman of the future, so perhaps the Mets are best served getting something in return for Davis now while they have the chance.

Update: The Mets will receive right-handed relief pitcher Zack Thornton and a player to be named later in return for Davis.

Here’s what we know about Thornton. A 25-year-old (he turns 26 next month), Thornton was picked in the 23rd round of the 2010 draft out of the University of Oregon by the Oakland A’s. He spent three years in the A’s system, reaching High-A, before he was scooped up by the Pirates in 2013. Thornton jumped from High-A to Double-A to Triple-A last year, striking out 90, walking 12 and allowing 58 hits in 75 1/3 innings. He was available in the most recent Rule 5 draft – meaning any team could have picked him, with the stipulation he stick on the 25-man roster for the entire 2014 season – but 29 clubs passed him over. He’s had a minor league track record of throwing strikes and issuing few walks, but I’m not sure how useful that is in a major league bullpen when you’re trying to get hitters out with men on base in the seventh and eighth innings.

CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman now reports that the player to be named later is “fairly significant,” so we’ll wait and see who that is before we make any grades on this trade.

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Previewing the Yankees-Rays series

New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia gets the ball from first baseman Kelly Johnson during the third inning of a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox Friday, April 11, 2014, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

It’ll be CC Sabathia vs. David Price tonight at Tropicana Field as the Yankees and Rays begin a four-game series in the Florida. The Yankees currently sit in first place in the AL East at 9-6, one half game in front of Toronto (8-6). Tampa Bay is 7-8, one game in front of last-place Boston (6-9) in the division.

Obviously, it’s still very, very early in the season, but this could be a key series for the Yankees against a Tampa Bay team that has had its share of pitching injuries already in 2014. Not that the Yankees are going to lock up a playoff berth or that the Rays are going to fall out of the race this weekend, but it’s a big series for both sides. Let’s take a look at what to expect this weekend.

Thursday

CC Sabathia (1-2, 6.63 ERA) vs. David Price (2-0, 2.91 ERA)

Friday

Hiroki Kuroda (2-1, 3.59 ERA) vs. Erik Bedard (0-0, 4.56 ERA in one relief appearance)

Saturday

Ivan Nova (2-1, 5.94 ERA) vs. Chris Archer (1-1, 4.50 ERA)

Sunday

TBA vs. Cesar Ramos (0-1, 7.50 ERA in five appearances, one of which was a start)

  • Tampa Bay has been hit hard by injuries to the starting rotation. Jeremy Hellickson is out until June or so after elbow surgery. Matt Moore has a partially torn UCL and has opted for Tommy John, so he’ll miss the rest of the season. Alex Cobb recently went down with a strained oblique and will miss six to eight weeks. That means the Yankees will only see two of Tampa’s top five starters this weekend. Veteran lefty Erik Bedard joins the rotation this weekend. Bedard has been hampered by injuries and poor performance since his breakout season in Baltimore in 2007. Cesar Ramos has been a situational lefty with control issues for the bulk of his career, but he’s been pushed into action with the injuries.
  • The Yankees are currently listing Sunday’s starter as TBA after a Tuesday rainout forced a doubleheader on Wednesday against the Cubs. With a day off on Monday, the Yankees could opt to go mix-and-match out of the bullpen, perhaps using Vidal Nuno, David Phelps and Adam Warren for three innings apiece or so instead making any roster moves to call up a starter. It’ll be interesting to see how Girardi plays it, but the Yankees should be able to muster some sort of offense against Ramos, especially if they can drive up his pitch count.
  • Tonight’s game is going to be challenging for the Yankees. Price has owned the Yankees in his career (9-4, 3.65 ERA), well, except for giving up Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit. Sabathia is struggling out of the gate, having allowed a league-leading (or league-worst) five home runs through three starts. He’s 11-13 with a 3.78 ERA all-time against Tampa Bay.
  • Despite all the pitching injuries, Tampa Bay’s problem early in 2014 has been the offense. Matt Joyce is the only regular hitting over .300. Joyce (2) and Ben Zobrist (3) are the only Rays with multiple home runs so far, and Zobrist hit a pair in one game in Cincinnati earlier this season. It hasn’t just been hits and extra-base hits that have been lacking for Tampa Bay. Zobrist, Joyce, Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings are the only Rays with on-base percentages above the .300 line so far. So the Rays aren’t taking their walks either. That could be good news for Sabathia, as long as he’s throwing strikes and getting ahead.
  • Expect plenty of infield shifts this series. Rays manager Joe Maddon was one of the early innovators when it came to defensive shifts. Now, practically every team in baseball is using an overshift multiple times per game. The Yankees, in fact, have adjusted to the times. Through games of April 12, the Yankees were second in baseball, having shifted 79 times. Only Houston had shifted more through the first few weeks of the season. I don’t know what the counter move is, offensively, to combat these shifts, but I’d bet that Maddon is again an innovator. Perhaps we’ll see Matt Joyce do something interesting to try to get on base this weekend.
  • Joe Girardi will have to make some choices when it comes to the lineups this weekend. Derek Jeter returned to action last night against Chicago, but how many games is Girardi willing to play Jeter on the artificial turf in the Trop? I would guess that he’ll start one game at short and get some chances to DH, especially with three lefty starters for Tampa in the series. That, however, would likely leave Alfonso Soriano on the bench, unless Girardi wants to rest one of his starting outfielders, all of whom have hit well so far. Carlos Beltran has been red-hot lately, but I could see him getting a day off during this series as Girardi tries to keep him fresh and off the turf. Brian Roberts has avoided the DL so far with his back problems, but I wonder just how much time he’ll see this weekend. The Yankees have Scott Sizemore as another infield option now, so that buys them some time with Roberts.
  • The Yankees might add Mark Teixeira back to the lineup on Sunday, the first day he’s eligible to return from the DL. That would help out the infield a bit, allowing Kelly Johnson to move back to third base and leave Dean Anna, Yangervis Solarte, Derek Jeter, Brian Roberts and Scott Sizemore in a giant platoon between second base and shortstop. Adding another switch-hitter to the middle of the lineup allows Girardi to get a little more creative trying to balance his left-handed and right-handed hitters.
  • After Monday’s off day, the Yankees head to Fenway Park for a 3-game series in Boston. David Robertson should be back in the bullpen on Tuesday night. The Yankees have to be pleased with how his replacements handled their roles in his absence. After that, it’s back to the Bronx for a nine-game homestand against the Angels, Mariners and Rays.

The Mets wrapped up a three-game sweep in Phoenix on Wednesday afternoon, as Dillon Gee struck out three, scattered three hits and walked none over seven innings in a 5-2 victory over the Diamondbacks. It wasn’t even that close for the Mets, as Jose Valverde allowed back-to-back home runs to Aaron Hill and Paul Goldschmidt in a non-save situation in the ninth inning.

Gee only needed 72 pitches to go seven innings. He was perfect through 4 2/3 innings, allowing his first baserunner on a Martin Prado double.

Lost in the shuffle of all the talk about young pitchers in the Mets’ organization, Gee is 1-0 with a 5.01 ERA through four starts. He’s been stung a bit by the Mets’ bullpen woes. But his secondary stats are terrific. In 26 2/3 innings, Gee has allowed 19 hits, seven walks and struck out 17. He has allowed five home runs. With Matt Harvey out for the season, Bartolo Colon getting rocked in his last start in Anaheim and the Mets’ starting pitching studs still years away in the minors, the club needs a big year out of Gee. Other than the home runs, he’s delivered so far.

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Mets heating up and getting hurt in Arizona; Yankees rearrange roster

New York Mets' Juan Lagares, center, is greeted by teammates after he scored on a single hit by Omar Quintanilla during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels on Saturday, April 12, 2014, in Anaheim, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The Mets have won two straight in Phoenix after getting crushed in the series finale against the Angels on Sunday.

That doesn’t mean they’ve been able to avoid injuries.

Curtis Granderson crashed up against the outfield fence in Monday’s win, won’t hit the DL. His whole left side is essentially bruised, but he plans to return to the lineup on Friday when the Mets begin a 3-game set at home against Atlanta.

Juan Lagares, on the other hand, is headed to the DL with a pulled right hamstring. Kirk Nieuwenhuis took his spot on the roster and went 3-for-5 with three RBI – including a 2-run home run off Bronson Arroyo – in his season debut. Nieuwenhuis might not be around for long, however, as Chris Young is due back from his stint on the DL when the Mets return to New York on Friday.

The Lagares loss is a big blow, not only because of the skills he brings defensively in center field. Lagares was hitting .314 with five extra base hits and seven RBI through 13 games. Granderson could play center with Lagares out, being flanked by Eric Young Jr. and Chris Young. Or the Mets could send Andrew Brown down to Triple-A and keep Nieuwenhuis as a center field option. Either way, losing Lagares really hurts the Mets, both in the field and at the plate. Chris Young will certainly get an opportunity right off the DL to prove that he belongs in the lineup on a daily basis.

Jenrry Mejia pitched well for the Mets last night, striking out three, walking two and allowing two hits over five scoreless innings, but he left the game early with a finger blister after throwing just 77 pitches. Gonzalez Germen followed with three one-hit innings in relief, and Kyle Farnsworth pitched a scoreless ninth to close the game.

The Mets made a move to shore up the pitching in the meantime – Bartolo Colon is also battling some back spasms – outrighting lefty John Lannan and recalling Diasuke Matsuzaka from Triple-A. The Mets say Dice-K will be used out of the bullpen for now, but he could see a spot start if Colon or Mejia aren’t ready for their next turn. With an off day on Thursday, the Mets will have some options when it comes to rotation rest. Lannan has a choice to accept assignment to Triple-A or elect free agency. Lannan didn’t pitch particularly well in a relief role this season and might have a chance to stick somewhere else as a starter.

Dice-K went 3-3 with a 4.42 ERA in seven starts with the Mets last season. He was 0-0 with a 2.25 ERA in two starts for Las Vegas this season, striking out 12, walking six and allowing seven hits over 12 innings. He’s made just one relief appearance in his professional career in the U.S.

Dillon Gee faces Brandon McCarthy this afternoon as the teams conclude the series in Phoenix. Arizona, at 4-13, has the worst winning percentage in baseball. The Mets, 7-7 heading into the series finale, will have a chance to make up some ground on Atlanta this weekend. The Braves sit in first place in the NL East standings at 9-4 prior to tonight’s game against the Phillies.

The Yankees used Monday’s off day and Tuesday’s rainout to make some roster moves of their own. Catcher Francisco Cervelli landed on the 60-day disabled list with his hamstring sprain, forcing the Yankees to recall John Ryan Murphy as Brian McCann’s backup for at least the next two months.

Murphy really struggled in spring training – he went 2-for-26 with one home run and five RBI – but the Yankees’ front office has been high on him for a while. Cervelli was rumored to be on the trade block in spring training because the Yankees felt Murphy could be a contributor at the big league level. He played in 16 games at the end of the 2013 season when rosters expanded.

With Derek Jeter and Brian Roberts also day-to-day with injuries of their own, the Yankees sent reliever Shane Green back to Triple-A. In his place, they called up Scott Sizemore, formerly of Detroit and Oakland. Sizemore will wear Robinson Cano’s old number, No. 24.

Sizemore had some brief success with the A’s as a second and third baseman, but he’s twice torn the ACL in his left knee. He’ll help lighten the load on Jeter and Roberts for now, joining a crowded infield mix with Yangervis Solarte, Dean Anna and Kelly Johnson as well.

New York Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka delivers in the first inning of the first game of an interleague baseball doubleheader against the Chicago Cubs at Yankee Stadium in New York, Wednesday, April 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Yankees play a doubleheader today against the Cubs after Tuesday’s rainout. Masahiro Tanaka just pitched a gem over eight innings and Shawn Kelley is on to try to earn the save in the ninth. I’ll have more on Tanaka after the PITCHf/x results are posted.

OK, so the data is in. Tanaka threw 107 pitches over eight innings, striking out 10, walking one and allowing just two hits in a 3-0 victory. Through his first three starts, he’s struck out 28 hitters, a new Yankees club record. He’s walked just two batters through those three starts.

Tanaka is averaging 11.45 strikeouts per nine innings and has gotten a 50 percent ground ball rate, which is what you’d like to see from a pitcher with such heavy stuff as his. He’s also stranded 77.5 percent of runners on base.

The Cubs lineup that Tanaka faced today was pretty putrid, so it’s not wise to make too much of one start. Still he has faced a tough Baltimore lineup in Yankee Stadium and a power hitting Blue Jays team in Toronto in his MLB debut.

If there is one thing that’s been impressive about Tanaka early on, it’s been his consistency, even with this small sample size. He’s struck out 8, 10 and 10. He’s allowed 6, 7 and 2 hits. He’s walked 0, 1 and 1. He gave up three runs in each of his first two starts and held the Cubs scoreless over eight today.

I’m not saying Tanaka will strike out 10 batters per game all season long, but the fact that he’s been this consistent over three starts is a very positive sign that he’ll be competitive on the mound all year long. With the injury problems the Yankees have faced in the infield and bullpen this year, getting an almost guaranteed solid start every fifth day will be a huge boost for the Yankees’ postseason chances.

Michael Pineda pitches the nightcap at 7 p.m. against Chicago’s Travis Wood.

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Banged-up Yanks survive Red Sox; Colon hit hard in LA

New York Yankees Carlos Beltran gestures after hitting a seventh-inning double in the Yankees 3-2 victory over the Boston Red Sox in a baseball game at Yankee Stadium in New York, Sunday, April 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The game of the week certainly lived up to the billing this time, as the Yankees topped Boston, 3-2, in an exciting game on Sunday night.

But there were plenty of postgame questions for Yankees manager Joe Girardi.

With Derek Jeter on the bench for a second straight game (strained right quad) and Brian Roberts also unavailable (lower back) the Yankees had a very short bench. So when Francisco Cervelli, who was playing first base, was taken out with a hamstring strain, that meant the Yankees had no backup catcher behind Brian McCann. They also needed to find a new first baseman.

So in came Carlos Beltran from right field to play first…for the first time in his life. Beltran did fine, making a few putouts on ground balls. His replacement in right field, Ichiro, also came up big with a crashing-to-the-wall catch that robbed David Ortiz of a base hit late in the game.

There were also some close calls for the Yankees injury-wise. Rookie Yangervis Solarte took a shot…ahem…below the belt on a close play at first base. He came up limping but remained in the game. Brian McCann took a ball off his right hand after Red Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski was hit by a pitch. McCann stayed in the game – really, he had no choice – and x-rays were negative. Cervelli broke his hand on a similar play last year.

So the Yankees certainly have some moves to make in the coming days. They have a home off day Monday and host the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday.

Cervelli has been placed on the disabled list with his hamstring strain. I’d imagine he’ll miss three to four weeks with an injury like that, so the Yankees have called up Austin Romine to serve as McCann’s backup for the time being. They’ve also optioned reliever Shane Greene to Triple-A Scranton, opening up another roster spot. With Jeter and Roberts both day-to-day, it might make sense to call up another infielder, particiularly one who can play the corner spots. Scott Sizemore and Russ Canzler would be the likely candidates to bolster the bench. The only problem with that idea is that neither Sizemore nor Canzler are on the 40-man roster, so the Yankees would have to DFA or release someone to open up a spot. It’s tough to see who the Yankees would take off the 40-man at this point. And yes, Alex Rodriguez still has a place on the 40-man while he serves his season-long suspension. Young pitcher Bryan Mitchell, who has some ugly minor league stats, might be the one to go. Zoilo Almonte, who’s had a cup of coffee in the outfield before, looks like the most expendable position player.

The New York Post wonders if reserve infielder Brendan Ryan, currently on the 15-day DL, could be shifted to the 60-day DL. That would open up a 40-man spot, and put Ryan on track for a mid-June return. That seems the most likely move, although I wonder if Cashman could also find something via a trade today and have a new player in New York by game time on Tuesday night.

You knew from the beginning that injuries were going to be a key storyline for the Yankees in 2014. I just didn’t figure that they’d already be totally decimated by April 13.

Lost in the shuffle of last night’s injury news was the performance of David Phelps out of the bullpen in a big spot in the eighth inning.

Ivan Nova pitched 7 1/3 innings, giving up eight hits, striking out four and walking none in an impressive start. Matt Thornton came on to retire David Ortiz thanks to Ichiro’s spectacular catch. Then came in Phelps, immediately gave up a double to Napoli, walked Daniel Nava and hit A.J. Pierzynski with a pitch to load the bases with two away.

New York Mets third baseman David Wright grabs his equipment after being ejected during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim, Calif., Sunday, April 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

Mike Carp then pinch-hit for Ryan Roberts. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, after a bunch of foul balls, Phelps got Carp swinging on an 84-MPH curveball low and inside. Phelps did a little fist pump as he danced off the mound. Shawn Kelley got two strikeouts and a line drive to center field in the ninth to pick up the save.

It was a big performance for Phelps in a huge spot. He’s typically been used as a mop-up guy or in a spot starting role in his brief big league career. But with closer David Robertson on the DL, the Yankees have had to slide everyone in the bullpen up an inning or so from their normal roles. So that means Phelps and Adam Warren are going to get to challenging assignments late in close games. Phelps certainly proved that he was up to the task on Sunday, even if he had to pull a Robertson (hit, walk, HBP) to get out of trouble. On top of Nova’s strong start, it was another encouraging sign for a team that needed something positive in a game that was mostly otherwise full of bad news.

Just about the only moment from Sunday’s Mets-Angels game worth mentioning was David Wright‘s tirade from the dugout after Travis d’Arnaud was called out looking at strike three by home plate umpire Toby Basner in the top of the seventh inning.

“You are the worst!” TV cameras caught Wright screaming just before he was ejected.

Daniel Murphy was also ejected as the Mets’ frustrations with the home plate ump boiled over.

The Angels ran away with this one early, as Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Raul Ibanez hit back-to-back-to-back homers in the bottom of the first inning off Bartolo Colon. Colon gave up nine runs on 11 hits over five innings. He walked two, struck out three and threw 81 pitches before Terry Collins couldn’t take anymore. The Angels went on to win, 14-2.

The Mets stay out west, as they take on Arizona tonight. It’ll be Zack Wheeler against Josh Collmenter at 9:40 p.m. EST. The Diamondbacks are in last place in the NL West at 4-11, but Mark Trumbo has hit six homers already for Arizona.

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Pineda accused of using pine tar; Mets bullpen impressive in win at ATL

New York Yankees starting pitcher Michael Pineda delivers a pitch during the first inning of a baseball game against the Boston Red Sox at Yankee Stadium in New York. Pineda pitched for the first four innings with a dark substance on the lower palm of his pitching hand, but it was gone by the fifth. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

The Yankees received a terrific start from Michael Pineda last night, as he went six innings and struck out seven in a 4-1 victory at Yankee Stadium.

The talk, however, shifted to an image captured on Red Sox television that showed a smudge on his pitching hand. Red Sox broadcasters wondered if it might have been pine tar. Suddenly, Pineda found himself at the middle of a baseball-doctoring controversy that zoomed around social media last night.

After the game, Pineda and Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi denied that Pineda had been doctoring the ball and left it at that.

Of course, reporters at the stadium went and asked some folks on the Boston side what they thought about the images viewers had seen on TV. And what the Red Sox said tells you a great deal about just how big of a “controversy” this really is.

Sports Illustrated’s Strike Zone blog has all the quotes here, but I’ll summarize.

Red Sox manager John Farrell: “I can’t say it’s uncommon, that guys would look to create a little bit of a grip. Typically, you’re not trying to be as blatant.”

Red Sox pitcher Chris Capuano: “You’ve got to have a grip on the baseball and know where it’s going,” said Capuano. “I just think you don’t want to flaunt it.”

To a fans’ perspective, when we think of pitchers putting something on the baseball, we think of Gaylord Perry and his penchant for using the spitball. These days, however, pitchers aren’t really doctoring the balls that much anymore – that we know of. Maybe it’s the increased video presence in the stadiums that doesn’t let them get away with it anymore. Still, this has been an issue every once in a while in the big leagues. In fact, both Boston’s Clay Buchholz, who started against Pineda on Thursday, and Jon Lester were accused on television of using substances on the mound in 2013. If they were using anything – Buchholz was using sunblock in a domed stadium – they were doing it to improve their grip, not to alter the flight of the ball.

The Red Sox never protested during Thursday’s game. Umpires never intervened. So this will probably just fade away after Pineda’s next start, when he’ll be much more careful to conceal any stickying agents he might use.

But maybe baseball ought to think about addressing this issue next. Every time you see the back of a mound on TV, you see the rosin bag sitting there. Baseball has made some effort to give players a legitimate option for drying/adding some tack to their fingers. Why are pitchers opting to use other things, such as sunblock and pine tar, instead? Is it really having any effect on how pitches reach the catcher? Or are pitchers just getting a little bit more control with a firmer grip?

It’s going to get pretty tiring if every baseball broadcast turns into constant close-ups of pitchers every time they move their hands.

On another Yankees topic, Girardi opted to use Michael Phelps for 2 1/3 innings to close out the game. He earned the first save of his career.

I don’t think it’s a trend that’s going to last all that long, but with Shawn Kelley pitching shakily since David Robertson landed on the DL, it might make sense for Girardi to use his long relievers in that role, even in close games. One, he plays to those pitchers’ strengths and two, he gives the rest of the bullpen a night off. Cesar Cabral threw 13 pitches to record two outs in the seventh inning. He should be available tonight if necessary. Phelps, who threw 34 pitches, probably is due for a few days off. But everyone else should be good to go tonight.

Speaking of bullpens, the Mets’ relief corps came through in a big way in last night’s 6-4 win in Atlanta.

Jenrry Mejia struck out seven over five innings, but he also allowed four runs on seven hits, including a pair of home runs.

Enter Carlos Torres, who struck out three and allowed one hit over two innings of scoreless work. Kyle Farnsworth pitched a scoreless eighth and Jose Valverde needed just seven pitches to record three outs in the ninth and collect his second save.

Juan Lagares put the Mets ahead with an RBI single in the seventh and David Wright added an RBI double to make it a two-run game in the eighth.

It’s only been nine games, but Lagares is hitting .303 with a .351 on-base percentage. He has two doubles, one triple, one home run and six RBI. The Mets knew Lagares would be an asset with his defense in center field, but he’s showing that he deserves to stick in the lineup as he continues to hit – and get big hits.

It’s still very early, but I’d have to say that Lagares has been the Mets’ biggest pleasant surprise in 2014.

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Yanks’ bullpen blows it; Mets comeback falls short

New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka reacts after second baseman Brian Roberts (not pictured) made a play to get out Baltimore Orioles' Ryan Flaherty (not pictured) to end the sixth inning of a baseball game Wednesday, April 9, 2014, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

The New York teams suffered a couple of tough one-run losses on Wednesday night.

We’ll start with the Yankees. Baltimore scored three runs in the top of the second inning on a Jonathan Schoop home run off Tanaka, but that was all the offense the Orioles would get against the Yankees’ big free agent acquisition. Tanaka settled down and finished with 10 strikeouts over seven innings.

The Yankees came back to tie the game with solo homers by Carlos Beltran and Kelly Johnson in the bottom of the second and an RBI groundout by Alfonso Soriano in the fourth.

Matt Thornton and Adam Warren navigated the top of the eighth, handing things over to the Yankees’ new closer, Shawn Kelley, in a tie game at the top of the ninth. Kelley gave up four straight hits and then a sacrifice fly to Chris Davis to open the inning. Despite a Brian Roberts sac fly in the bottom of the ninth, the Yankees lost, 5-4.

The Yankees have to be pretty pleased with Tanaka’s effort. Obviously, the Schoop home run was a big blow, but if that was the only mistake he made over seven innings, that’s still a great start. Really, it was just a disappointing effort by Kelley, who almost certainly won’t see any action tonight after throwing 30 pitches in the ninth. One wonders if the pressure of the ninth inning got to him – or if it was just the killer Baltimore lineup. Either way, he won’t be in the ninth inning role for long, as closer David Robertson should be back off the DL later this month.

Still, for a Yankees team that needs to win every game it can this season, especially against a division rival in the AL East, it’s a loss that’s going to sting for a while. They’ll start a series at home against Boston tonight. Clay Buchholz squares off against Michael Pineda.

The Mets, playing in Atlanta, were on the opposite side of things on Wednesday night. Atlanta’s Jason Heyward led off the bottom of the first with a solo home run off Zack Wheeler. Wheeler looked good until a five-hit inning in the bottom of the fifth led to three more Braves runs.

Braves starter Ervin Santana held the Mets to three hits, striking out six and walking none over eight innings. Atlanta went to Jordan Walden to start the top of the ninth in a non-save situation. Walden walked Eric Young, struck out David Murphy and allowed a single to David Wright before the Braves called in closer Craig Kimbrel. Kimbrel walked Curtis Granderson, got Lucas Duda to strike out swinging and then gave up a two-run single to Juan Lagares followed by an RBI single by Travis d’Arnaud. Ruben Tejada struck out swinging with runners on the corners to end the game.

Like the Yankees’ game, there were some positives to take from this one. Wheeler wasn’t totally terrible (5 IP, 8 H, 4 R, 6 K, 0 BB) and Juerys Familia pitched two scoreless innings out of the bullpen, followed by a scoreless frame from Gonzalez Germen.

And the Mets’ young hitters – Lagares and d’Arnaud – hitters the club needs big at-bats from, came through in the clutch. Kimbel, who’s been one of baseball’s best closers in recent seasons, was just too much for Tejada in the game’s final at-bat.

A win would have pulled the Mets into a tie with Atlanta in the NL East at 4-4. Instead, the Mets slink back to last place, tied with the Phillies at 3-5.

Jenrry Mejia gets the start tonight at Turner Field against Atlanta’s David Hale, who will make his fourth career start. Hale pitched five scoreless innings at Washington on April 4 in his first start.

Finally, some interesting words from Dr. James Andrews today over on the Big League Stew blog at Yahoo!

Check out that link for the full scoop, but I’ll summarize here.

Andrews, who has treated, evaluated and performed surgeries on many professional athletes, has been asked lately about the surge in Tommy John surgeries. Andrews says the key moving forward is to better identify problems in the arms of young pitchers.

Here’s his big quote:

“You can’t prevent ‘em,” Andrews said. “We can probably cut down the early injury rate. But kids that are playing and throwing so hard and are so competitive in professional baseball, you realize the dollar sign that’s on top of them, pushing them so hard. So you’re not going to prevent all of them. It’s like trying to prevent ACL injuries in the knee — it’s impossible.”

I caught up with some pitchers on the Warwick baseball team earlier this week. I was asking about what pitches they threw and how long it had taken them to develop their repertories, and they mentioned how they didn’t start throwing curveballs until they were on the jayvee team in high school. With pitch counts and breaking balls on the minds of Little League coaches these days, it will be interesting to see how many pitchers in professional baseball have arm injuries 10 years from now. I wonder if more caution on the youth baseball level will ever make pitchers healthier when they reach pro ball or if these injuries are just an inherent part of the sport.

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    Will Montgomery

    Will Montgomery covers boys' soccer, girls' basketball, boys' and girls' swimming and diving, boys' lacrosse and baseball (including the Hudson Valley Renegades) for Varsity845.com and the Times Herald-Record. Prior to joining the TH-R in November ... Read Full
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