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Expectations were high for the Astros as they entered the 1981 season. They had made their first playoff trip in history the autumn before, and narrowly missed a trip to the World Series. Although All-Star pitcher J.R. Richard was lost due to his devastating stroke, the Astros acquired the 1980 NL ERA champion and former Dodger nemesis Don Sutton to replace him.

The players' strike forced the cancellation of 52 mid-season games, leading to a "split season" and an extra round of playoffs. With their poor 28-29 first-half start erased, Houston got hot, won the second half of the season, and earned a post-season showdown with the Dodgers to determine the NL West Champions. Tainting the team's appearance in the playoffs was their overall 61-49 record: it was third best in the division behind Cincinnati and Los Angeles. In fact, Cincinnati and St. Louis sported the best overall records in the National League and neither team reached the playoffs because of the split-season format.

Early in the season, it had become clear that the pitchers would carry the team. Houston's struggling offense earned the nickname "The Chinese Water Torture Offense" because of the slow "drip, drip, drip" pace of scoring. The only respectable offensive season belonged to outfielder Jose Cruz, who paced the hitters with 13 homers and 55 RBI. The pitching staff was led by Nolan Ryan, who in turn led the league with an incredible 1.69 ERA. In fact, the worst ERA in the starting rotation belonged to the #5 starter, Vern Ruhle, and his stood at a very respectable 2.91. Don Sutton posted 11 wins and an impressive 2.61 ERA, but a late-season injury forced him to miss the playoffs.

In contrast to Houston, Los Angeles brought a good offense to the post-season. Paced by Steve Garvey, Pedro Guerrero, Dusty Baker, and Ron Cey, the Dodgers led the league in home runs and scored a full half-run per game more than the Astros. Unfortunately for Houston, the team ERA for the Dodgers' pitching staff was also more than a half-run below that of the Astros.

At the Astrodome, the series lived up to it's low-offense billing. In Game 1, catcher Alan Ashby broke up a tight, 1-1 duel with a game-winning, two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning. In Game 2, Denny Walling pushed across the only run of the game with an RBI single in the 11th inning.

The teams then moved to Los Angeles for the final games. With a 2-0 series lead, the Dodgers would have to sweep all three to avoid elimination, and that's exactly what they did. In Game 3, Burt Hooton held the Astros to three hits in an easy 6-1 victory by the Dodgers. In Game 4, Fernando Valenzuela tossed a four-hitter as the Dodgers evened the series with a 2-1 victory. With both teams facing elimination in Game 5, Jerry Reuss tossed a five-hit shutout to put the Astros' hitters out of their misery.

Although Houston had taken the first two playoff games, the 1981 Astros were not a very good team and were fortunate to make the playoffs. Their heavy reliance on pitching made them too one-dimensional, and their offense was limited to just six runs in the five-game series.

Game 1 at Houston - Astros 3, Dodgers 1
Tuesday, October 6th, 1981

                1 2 3  4 5 6  7 8 9    R  H  E
Los Angeles     0 0 0  0 0 0  1 0 0 -  1  2  0
Houston         0 0 0  0 0 1  0 0 2 -  3  8  0

Win - Ryan. Loss - Stewart. HR - Garvey, Ashby.
Time - 2:22. Attendance - 44,836
HOUSTON - The secret life of Alan Ashby was shattered Tuesday night by one shout off his bat.

"It was a lucky swing, frankly," said Ashby, a 29-year-old switch-hitting catcher. "I'm not a home run hitter. but from about the time I swung and saw it in the air, I knew it was going to creep out. I was jumping for joy in the batter's box before the crowd even realized what had happened. It was like a Walter Mitty dream come true."

Ashby's first-pitch, two-run homer -- drilled deep to right with two out in the bottom of the ninth off Dodger reliever Dave Stewart -- vaulted Houston's Astros to a 3-1 victory over Los Angeles in the opener of the National League West best-of-five divisional series.

"It was a fastball... down the middle," Ashby said. "It was just something I was able to get a good swing at. That's all I really wanted, was to take a good swing."

"It sounds bad for a guy who averages four home runs a year to say I was actually thinking about the possibility of hitting a homer when I was walking up to the plate, but I really was."

Ashby's homer gave Nolan Ryan the victory. Ryan, locked until the ninth in a splendid duel with Fernando Valenzuela, was just as awesome as he had been on Sept. 26,when he threw a no-hitter at the Dodgers in the Astrodome.

Ryan allowed only two hits -- Ken Landreaux's chopper up the middle in the first and Steve Garvey's booming homer to near straight-away center field in the seventh. He walked one, struck out seven and allowed just seven fly balls to the outfield, though a couple were long shots.

"I felt I was sharper tonight (than the no-hit game)," Ryan said, "but the Dodgers were being more agressive with the bat. Overall, there wasn't much difference in this game and the no-hitter."

Now it's on to Game Two, a 12:05 p.m. encounter Wednesday in the Dome, featuring the Astros' Joe Niekro (9-9) against Jerry Reuss (10-4). Friday the series resumes in Los Angeles, with Bob Knepper going against LA's Burt Hooton; and, if a fourth game is necessary, Houston manager Bill Virdon admitted he is considering coming back with Ryan, although for the time being he is listing Vern Ruhle as his starter.

Tuesday's opener was all it was billed to be: A gem between Ryan and Valenzuela. Singles by Cesar Cedeno (he's 6-for-13 off Valenzuela this year) and Art Howe were all the Astros had to show offensively until the sixth.

With two out, Terry Puhl yanked a 2-ball, 2-strike changeup to right for a single. Leading the Astros in steals with 22, Puhl had the 20-year-old Valenzuela's attention as well as that of Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda, who called for two straight pitch-outs to the next hitter, Phil Garner.

Garner eventually walked, putting runners at first and second, and Tony Scott followed by dumping a single to right. Second baseman Davey Lopes was unable to make an over-the-head basket catch, and Puhl scored the game's first run.

But, after Ryan had retired the first two batters in the seventh, Garvey squared things with his blast.

The Astros threatened again in the seventh when Cedeno doubled inside the bag at third, Ashby was intentionally walked with two out and Cedeno stole third while Valenzuela was eyeing the signals for his first pitch to Ryan. But, Ryan grounded to second, and this one looked to go all night.

However, with Valenzuela due to lead off the ninth, Lasorda opted for pinch hitter Jay Johnstone.

"We felt Fernando had pitched hard and long enough, and we wanted to get a run right then and there," Lasorda explained.

The Dodgers didn't. But the Astros did in the bottom of the inning.

Stewart, a big, hard-throwing right-hander, fanned Cedeno and got Howe on a fly ball to center before allowing a single to pinch-hitter Craig Reynolds.

That brought up Ashby, hitting left-handed this night for the first time. Three of his four home runs this season have been from that side. But, while kicking around in Cleveland and Toronto before coming to Houston in 1979, he had never been much of a long-ball threat.

None of that matters now.

"Our ballpark and our ballclub seem to dictate close games," Ashby said. "It was tough for us to get a good swing off Valenzuela the way he was going tonight. This is all still so unbelievable. Like I said, this is like a Walter Mitty dream for me"

The shot was some 20 feet fair down the line. And deep. And the 44,836 on hand, largest crowd of the year in the Dome, went wild with joy. So did Alan Ashby as he circled the bases in a dream.

Catcher Alan Ashby finds a crowd of happy teammates
waiting for him as he reaches home after slugging a
game-winning, two-run, two-out homer.   
Alan Ashby, the hero of Game 1, prepares
for a post-game interview

Game 2 at Houston - Astros 1, Dodgers 0 (11 innings)
Wednesday, October 7th, 1981

                1 2 3  4 5 6  7 8 9  0 1    R  H  E
Los Angeles     0 0 0  0 0 0  0 0 0  0 0 -  0  9  1
Houston         0 0 0  0 0 0  0 0 0  0 1 -  1  9  0

Win - Sambito. Loss - Stewart.
Time - 3:39. Attendance - 42,398.
HOUSTON - The Great Dodger in the Sky, as Los Angeles manager Tom Lasorda so fondly refers to him, hasn't done a thing indoors.

The Houston Astros, quite possibly the cruelest team in baseball, won another in typical torture-treatment fashion Wednesday afternoon in the spacious Astrodome, easing past the Dodgers, 1-0, in 11 innings on more awesome pitching and a bases-loaded, 2-out single by pinch-hitter Denny Walling.

That's the way the Astros bury teams. They shrivel up offenses with all that marvelous pitching, then leave it up to one of their journeyman players to poke a winning base hit sooner or later.

The Dodgers have managed just one run -- Steve Garvey's solo homer Tuesday off Nolan Ryan -- in 20 innings against Houston. They left 10 on base in eight innings off Joe Niekro, who struggled until he had to make the crucial pitch, left another stranded in the 10th against reliever Dave Smith and two more in the 11th against Joe Sambito.

The Astros, who don't hit many pitchers anyway, threatened only twice before the 11th, having been shut down by Jerry Reuss for nine innings and Steve Howe for one.

But in the 11th, reliever Dave Stewart -- the victim of Alan Ashby's 2-run, ninth-inning homer in the opener -- yielded back-to-back singles by Phil Garner and Tony Scott, putting runners at first and third with no outs.

Lefty Terry Forster entered to get Jose Cruz on an easy pop up. Lasorda then went to right-hander Tom Niedenfuer, who intentionally walked Cesar Cedeno to load the bases, fanned Art Howe for the second out and gave up Walling's line shot over the head of right-fielder Derrel Thomas. Walling was hitting for Dickie Thon.

"I was checking the outfield the last three or four innings, since Thomas entered (as a defensive replacement for Rick Monday)," Walling said, "and I noticed he was playing shallow. If he been a little deeper, he might have been able to get it."

"(Coach) Danny Ozark had been placing the outfielders perfectly all game," Lasorda said. "They hit a lot of line drives right at our outfielders. That time, it just didn't work out."

So now the Astros head for Game 3 in Los Angeles Friday afternoon, and they face a very familiar situation. They needed to win only one of three against the Dodgers in the final series of the 1980 regular season to clinch the National League West. Instead, they lost all three, and had to use a victory over LA in a 1-game playoff to win their first pennant in 19 years.

They again needed only one victory in LA last week to wrap up the Second Season title, but the Astros dropped two straight and used Cincinnnati losses to clinch the playoff berth.

"Seems like I just went through this last week," Houston manager Bill Virdon said. "I hope we can get out of there with one win."

Virdon plans to throw southpaw Bob Knepper (9-5) against Bob Welch (9-5) in Friday's 3:05 p.m. game, then says he'll follow, if necessary, with Vern Ruhle in Game 4, saving Ryan for either the final, if needed, or the opener of the National League playoffs Tuesday.

Right now, Don Sutton's season-ending injury seems less and less significant.

Unlike Ryan in his 2-hitter the day before, Niekro continually found himself working out of the stretch. He retired the side in order in only two of his eight innings. Most critical were the Dodger sixth, when he struck out Reuss with the bases loaded, and the seventh, when Davey Lopes led with a booming double and was bunted to third.

However, Niekro got .320-hitting Dusty Baker on a grounder to third, with Lopes holding, and Garvey on a ground ball to short.

After Reuss retired the first 13 he faced, Houston finally got into the non-swing of things, too, stranding two in the seventh and two in the ninth.

Also, in the fifth inning, with one out, Cedeno walked, then appeared to be gunned down attempting to steal second. Instead, he was safe when Dodger shortstop Bill Russell dropped his glove while making the tag. One out later, Thon slapped a sharp grounder that Russell speared with a diving backhand. Cedeno, apparently thinking that the ball had gone through, rounded third, ran through third base coach Don Leppert's stop sign, and was easy pickings at the plate.

"Both teams were frustrated today," Garvey said. "I imagine a lot of fans were frustrated, too. There were a lot of opportunities to punch across a run."

The Dodgers have had problems in that area. Dating back to their last two regular-season appearances in the Astrodome, the Dodgers have managed two runs off Houston pitching in 38 innings.

"If you were to tell me we would score one run in two games here, what kind of chances would you figure we had?" Reuss asked.

The answer was written on the scoreboard: another typical Houston victory.

Luis Pujols hugs a jubilant Phil
Garner after he scored the
winning run. Not that there's
anything wrong with that.   
Denny Walling waves a fist as he is congratulated by
teammates after hitting the game-winning single.

Game 3 at Los Angeles - Dodgers 6, Astros 1
Friday, October 9th, 1981

                1 2 3  4 5 6  7 8 9    R  H  E
Houston         0 0 1  0 0 0  0 0 0 -  1  3  2
Los Angeles     3 0 0  0 0 0  0 3 x -  6 10  0

Win - Hooton. Loss - Knepper. HR - Howe, Garvey.
Time - 2:35. Attendance - 46,820.
LOS ANGELES - In the Astrodome, where the outfield wall looks as far away as the refineries in Pasadena, the Los Angeles Dodgers enjoyed all the explosiveness of oatmeal. They didn't snap, they didn't crackle, they didn't pop. They just laid around, a soggy mess.

Ah, but Dodger Stadium and its sweet smell of home.

The Dodgers took Game 3 of this best-of-5 divisional series, 6-1, in what they hope is a preview of things to come. The psyche job, clearly, is in.

With Fernando Valenzuela going against Houston's Vern Ruhle Saturday in a match that will either square the series of send Houston with the National League West crown, the Dodgers would be the first to admit there's no place like home.

"They (Astro pitchers) know they had a cavernous ballpark behind them in Astrodome," said Dodger first baseman Steve Garvey, whose 2-run homer to left in the first inning set the tone for this one. "I'm quite sure they're concerned about this park (Dodger Stadium)."

"We led the National League in home runs again this year. They could afford to challenge us in the Dome. It psychologically has to be different for them here."

As for hitting, of course, the Astros were their typical selves. They never hit all that well, and they managed just three - a Jose Cruz single in the second, Art Howe's solo homer to left in the third inning and a Cruz double in the seventh.

"We've got to get a priest in here Saturday to bless our bats," Astro reliever Dave Smith reflected afterward.

Everything fell exactly into place for the Dodgers, who had managed a meager run in 20 innings in the Astrodome as Houston swept two there.

Not only did Burt Hooton handcuff Houston for seven innings, later receiving help from Steve Howe and Bob Welch, but three quick runs in the first inning off Houston southpaw Bob Knepper took away the Astros' opportunity to hit-and-run and peck away.

It was hardly a game for a manager to play manager. Bill Virdon could only sit and watch. "This," the Astro manager conceded, "was a no-sweater. The wrong way."

It began when Knepper walked Davey Lopes on four pitches. He was bunted to second and scored on a Dusty Baker double to deep left-center. That brought up Garvey, whose solo off Nolan Ryan in Game 1 was accountable for LA's entire production in the Dome. He crushed a 2-run shot over the left-field fence, the Dodgers jumped on southpaw reliever Joe Sambito for three insurance runs in the eighth. And this one amounted to a cakewalk in front of 46,820 who were strangely calm while sitting in the afternoon sun (known as smog in these parts).

"Last year, when we swept them three straight to end the season, the crowds were wild," right fielder Rick Monday said. "This time, they took on a little bit more of a show-me stance after our two losses in Houston."

"If they're not out here Saturday, I think a lot of fans in LA are going to have to lie that they were always behind the club, because we're on our way now."

What a difference a ballpark makes.

"That's the story of baseball," Baker said. "Not only who's pitching, but where you're pitching."

"I'm sure Houston has it in their minds how much success we've had against them here," Garvey said, nodding.

From the time Howe stroked his homer in the third until the Dodger eighth, the Astros nonetheless found themselves clearly in this game. But few balls were hit hard, including the outs, and Hooton walked only two.

When Hooton threw four consecutive balls to Howe leading off the eighth, Dodger manager Tom Lasorda wasted no time going to Howe, who retired pinch hitter Dickie Thon on a fly to right, struck out pinch hitter Gary Woods and also fanned Terry Puhl to end the inning.

After singles by Steve Yeager and Bill Russell playted two more runs in the eighth, Lasorda batted Reggie Smith for Howe with runners at second and third.

"I wanted those runners in," Lasorda said. Smith stroked a sacrifice fly, making it 6-1, and Welch put away the Astros in the ninth.

Now everything points toward the 7:20 p.m. Saturday affair.

"No way has the momentum shifted," Houston's Art Howe contended. "They have to win two, we only have to win one."

Garvey, on the other hand, said, "Playing here has got to put doubts in their minds."

Game 4 at Los Angeles - Dodgers 2, Astros 1
Saturday, October 10th, 1981

                1 2 3  4 5 6  7 8 9    R  H  E
Houston         0 0 0  0 0 0  0 0 1 -  1  4  0
Los Angeles     0 0 0  0 1 0  1 0 x -  2  4  0

Win - Valenzuela. Loss - Ruhle. HR - Guerrero.
Time - 2:00. Attendance - 55,9832.
LOS ANGELES - Sweat and tension will give way to champagne and merriment for either the Houston Astros or Los Angeles Dodgers Sunday.

The Dodgers knotted this best-of-five series Saturday evening with a 2-1 victory behind just two timely swings and the 4-hit pitching of 20-year-old Fernando Valenzuela.

Now it's up to Nolan Ryan to tame the Dodgers at their own ballyard (3:05 p.m.), where Los Angeles has beaten Houston 13 of the last 15 times. And, it's up to Reuss to accomplish something that hasn't appeared to be all that difficult: Put a muzzle on the Astros' spaghetti bats.

Ryan 2-hit the Dodgers in Game 1, allowing only Steve Garvey's solo homer. Reuss shut out Houston for nine innings of Game 2, won by the Astros in the 11th.

"They've got the home field advantage," Houston third baseman Art Howe rationalized, "and we've got Nolan, so I guess we're even."

"It's not that our players don't try as hard when others are pitching," said Houston righthander Vern Ruhle, Saturday's loser, "but this team is rallying behind Nolan now. He's won some big games for us down the stretch. The fact he'll be out there is like an extra confidence factor."

A little medicine for Houston bats wouldn't hurt either. Ruhle retired the first 14 Dodgers he faced before Pedro Guerrero hammered an inside fastball into the left field seats. In eight innings, Ruhle yielded only 4 hits and 2 runs.

But Fernando was, well, Fernando. If the Astros could find his hideaway, they'd have locked him up and kept him there. Valenzuela sat down the first 13 Astros, meaning all totaled the game's first 25 batters were outs, until Cesar Cedeno (7-for-15 this season against the young phenom) laced a single to left with one out in the fifth inning.

However, Cedeno was easy pickings when he broke for second base as Valenzuela threw to first in a pick-off attempt. Worse still for the Astros, Cedeno pulled his right hamstring racing to second and will miss an estimated seven to 10 days.

Houston did not touch Valenzuela again until the eighth on Howe's single over Guerrero's head at third. Trailing 2-0 in the ninth with one out, Terry Puhl doubled to left-center, moved up to third on a Phil Garner grounder and scored on a Tony Scott single.

But, Jose Cruz popped up to end the game, and, although this was the first complete game for a Dodger pitcher in the series, the Astros have managed just 17 hits in 33 innings against the four Dodger starters. Their other three runs this series are credited to Dodger reliever Dave Stewart.

What turned out to be the clinching run in this one came in the seventh when Garvey singled to left and was bunted to second. With two outs, Astro manager Bill Virdon went to the mound and asked Ruhle whether he wanted to pitch to the left-hander, Mike Scioscia, or Bill Russell.

"It didn't make me any difference," Virdon said. "I just wanted to make sure he threw to whichever one he wanted."

Ruhle chose to intentionally walk Scioscia, and Russell followed with a line single to right. Puhl handled the ball on one hop and nailed Scioscia going into third base, but Garvey scored (Puhl had no play at the plate) to give the Dodgers a 2-0 edge.

Valenzuela might have pitched all night with that lead... against Houston.

"Fernando never ceases to amaze me," Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda said. "He's only 20 years old, and to see him pitch in front of these large crowds, under tremendous pressure, it's amazing he can maintain poise and pitch that well so often. He's the greatest thing to happen to this organization in a long time."

"I really don't know why I don't get nervous," Valenzuela said through an interpreter. "It's probably just my natural way... I'll probably be more nervous tomorrow watching that game than I was tonight pitching in it."

It was the sixth time this season Valenzuela has had to pitch with only three days rest, and he's 4-2 with two shutouts.

Game 5 at Los Angeles - Dodgers 4, Astros 0
Sunday, October 11th, 1981

                1 2 3  4 5 6  7 8 9    R  H  E
Houston         0 0 0  0 0 0  0 0 0 -  0  5  3
Los Angeles     0 0 0  0 0 3  1 0 0 -  4  7  2

Win - Reuss. Loss - Ryan. 
Time - 2:52. Attendance - 55,979.
LOS ANGELES - Dusty Baker calls it The Last Breath, and if that is so it was a breath of fresh air in this city of brotherly smog.

"I believe in something called The Last Breath," said the Dodgers outfielder, dubbed Heart Beat by teammates. "You haven't beaten people until you've taken away their last breath. Even after we lost the first two games in Houston, we were still breathing."

The Dodgers are champions of their own ballpark, and hence the National League West. Jerry Reuss 5-hit a Houston Astros lineup of Bette Davis swingers, and the Dodgers finally got to Nolan Ryan, rolling to a 4-0 victory and a 3-game sweep in the only major league ballpark in which Ryan has never won.

Whipping Houston for the 14th time in their last 16 appearances in L.A., the Dodgers now lick their chops and await the winners in the East, the Montreal Expos. Los Angeles won five of seven against Montreal this season, including all three at Dodger Stadium.

The Dodgers have beaten the Expos 18 of the last 19 times here, including nine in a row.

"Right now," right fielder Rick Monday declared, "you could bring on the '27 Yankees and it wouldn't matter. We're sky high. We gotta come down by Tuesday (the opener of the best-of-five, starting with two games at Dodger Stadium), and then go to Montreal the same way we did Houston the last three days."

It probably won't be as easy. The Expos have an offense, which has become a 4-letter word in Houston. But that still takes nothing away from Reuss, who shut out the Astros for 18 innings in his two outings in this series.

While Reuss held Houston's feeble offense at bay (the Astros managed just six runs in the five games and three runs in 42 innings off Dodger starters), Los Angeles got to Ryan in the sixth inning.

Ryan, 0-6 in his career at Dodger Stadium, had no-hit and 2-hit Los Angeles in his last two confrontations with them, both in the Astrodome. He had allowed only one hit entering the sixth, and the entire weight of the one-dimensional Astros (that dimension being pitching) rested on his right arm.

In the sixth, Ken Landreaux popped to center for the first out, and Baker followed with a foul fly down the right-field line. However, first baseman Denny Walling failed to pick up the ball out of the sun, and second baseman Phil Garner, who later admitted the ball should have been caught, failed to get to it. Baker proceeded to walk, then moved to third on a hit-and-run single to left by Steve Garvey.

That brought up Monday.

"I fouled off a pitch I should have hit," Monday later recounted. "When you do that against Nolan Ryan, you better call out the National Guard because you don't expect to see another one."

But he got one and drilled it to right, scoring Baker with the game's first run. After Pedro Guerrero popped up for the second out, catcher Mike Scioscia slapped an RBI single up the middle for a 2-0 lead.

With runners at first and second, Bill Russell followed with a slow chopper at Houston third baseman Art Howe, who fielded and rifled to first in time. But, Walling did not handle the throw, and when the ball dribbled free, Monday scored to make it 3-0.

"I don't know if it's ego or what," Reuss said, "but I felt they got the three runs for me, so I'd take care of the rest." He added, "I wanted more runs, though. The more the better."

He got one more, not that it mattered. With Ryan having departed for a pinch-hitter in the seventh, Dave Smith entered. But, with one out, Ken Landreaux drilled a shot off Smith's left foot. The ball rolled all the way into foul territory and was scooped up by a fan leaning over the rail for a ground-rule double. Adding injury to insult, Smith was forced to leave. Billy Smith came in and, with two outs, Garvey ripped a triple to left-center for the Dodgers' final run.

"Ryan has a lot of guts," Baker said. "But, we could see he was searching for his curveball from the time he left the bullpen warming up."

"I was trying to throw the ball through the catcher and knock him down," Reuss said. "I was over-throwing, but I finally settled down in the middle innings and everything was OK after that."

"They out-pitched and out-hit us," Ryan said. "If I could have shut the Dodgers out, we'd still be out there playing."

Instead, the Dodgers await Montreal. "We were as serious as a heart attack when we came back from Houston down two games," L.A. manager Tom Lasorda said. "That's the way we'll be Tuesday when the Expos arrive."

By Astro Daily
 

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1981 NLDS1, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers

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