Is Lance McCullers Jr. the most critical cog entering 2020?


The last time Lance McCullers pitched for the Astros was game 4 of the 2018 ALCS against the Red Sox. The last time Lance McCullers pitched uninjured for the Astros was probably in early July of 2018. He had a 10-3 record and a 3.41 ERA and then gave up 14 runs in his next 13.2 innings before being shut down for most of August and September. He came back and pitched out of the bullpen for the final week of the season and through the playoffs and then underwent Tommy John surgery immediately after the season.

Whenever the 2020 season is discussed, LMJ is mentioned as the third starter behind Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke. The Astros have lost through free agency 74 starts from 2019 (almost 1/2 of a season) between Gerrit Cole (33), Wade Miley (33) and Collin McHugh (8). Note – McHugh theoretically could return, but there has been no mention of him as a possibility. So, a big chunk of the #2 and #3 starts of Cole and Miley are assumed to be picked up by Greinke and McCullers.

Greinke, who has 32 or 33 starts and more than 200 innings with ERAs ranging from 2.93 to 3.21  in each of the last three seasons, would seem to be capable of picking up a chunk of the slack from losing Cole. The bigger question is – what can the Astros expect from McCullers? Even with Miley’s struggles down the stretch, he still gobbled up 167.1 innings for the Astros in 2019.

The only time that LMJ has come close to that number of innings was in his rookie season when he completed 157.2 IP between the minors and the majors. Since then he has pitched a combined 89 IP in 2016, 126.2 IP in 2017 and 128.1 IP in 2018. And of course, that culminated in a big goose egg in 2019 as he recovered from the TJ surgery.

When he has pitched he has been good to very good for the Astros. He has a 29-22 record with a 3.67 ERA that has usually been better than that except for a few inflated games before some of his visits to the IL (actually DL at the time). He has a good 10.1 K/9 IP and gives up an excellent 0.7 HRs / 9 IP. His walk rate is pretty mediocre at 3.5 BB/9 IP and he consistently has had trouble going deep into games. In each of his seasons, he has averaged about in the middle between 5 and 6 innings a start. And there is a big question about how many innings he should pitch in a season after he pitched none.

On the positive side, Lance reported shortly after the team lost in the 2019 World Series that his rehab was over and that he was cleared to throw whatever and whenever he normally would this off-season including using his top-notch curve ball.

There are a number of choices here:

  • Start LMJ in the bullpen for a couple months and then ease him into the starting rotation
  • Throw him out there in the starting rotation and leave him there for the length of the season and hope he doesn’t break down
  • Throw him out there in the starting rotation and have him take 4-6 weeks off in the middle of the season due to some “strain” or “pain”

It might make the most sense to give him some time off in the middle of the season when one of their young guys (Forrest Whitley?) is ready to come up and help.

So……

  • Do you think McCullers is the most important cog coming into 2020?
  • How do you think they should handle his return?
  • Do you think he would be better off in a bullpen role?
  • What do you think the rotation will look like at the beginning of 2020? At the mid-point?

62 comments on “Is Lance McCullers Jr. the most critical cog entering 2020?

  1. This is a great post on a vital subject.
    So there is no misunderstanding, in my mind LMJ is a starting pitcher who has earned his stripes. Forget about the past since his arm has been babied since he was drafted.
    He was always a candidate for UCL problems and he has now had his elbow rebuilt. Start him off in ST with him building up to being a starting pitcher and let him fly with it.
    The Astros rotation is the most important part of this team in its drive to a championship. LMJ is set to be a huge part of that rotation. We need him out on the mound every fifth day. Give him the ball. Monitor his health closely. Don’t over work him. Hopefully his full potential is realized and then get him signed for the long term.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The 14 World Series games and a ALCS exit the last three seasons puts a large amount of strain on the players. You may recall I suggested the Astros sit Keuchel for the first half of spring training with an eye on him not being ready to take a full load when the real games started. Unfortunately, the player service time rules and negative effects from burning options doesn’t allow us to cycle through some minor league arms early in the season, but I strongly feel that Hinch should limit the amount of innings thrown by the starters early in the season. At the same time, bullpen have to be effective and spaced out. The only way that works is for the offense to break camp ready to score runs.

    So I think LMJ is a game changer when healthy, but is not the most important cog for April. Right now I can’t decide whether I think Correa or Alvarez is the most important cog entering the season. The lineup is going to be good, but we need that one player in the middle that changes everything – that chases starters from the game and drives in men with clutch, two out hits. We need that pressure that makes the opponents pitchers work and gives our guys a ton of cushion. But when we get to October it’s a different story. You can’t expect lopsided games and every series can swing on a single game. I think LMJ may be the most important cog for that. We know he’s itching to get back to that stage. I think this is his year to have a breakout postseason the way Cole did in 2019.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I would rather see what he’s got in the way of a repertoire, velocity, and command before we make those decisions. I am always skeptical about pitchers who thrive on super-fast spinning curve balls returning quickly from TMJ. I am particularly skeptical about LMJ, since his fastball has never been a major league quality out pitch.

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    • I understand the concern, however this is not in any way a quick return – he has rehabbed for a year and it will be a year and 3 months at least before he faces live pitching.
      But yes, if his curve is not what it was it will make him eminently hittable.
      Plus side is that these days most guys who come back from TJ surgery are as good as they were.

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  4. i wouldnt call him the MOST important cog, but he dang sure is an important one. if he pitches up to his abilities it will be a great help. if he has problems or is in and out with arm problems it will cause a big problem in the rotation. my hope is they start him out slowly and carefully and if he shows he is ready, let him go full tilt boogie.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. No matter what McCullers does or doesn’t do, as I see it both finding another quality starter for the 2020 team on the trade market AND ‘final grooming’ someone like Urquidy, Abreu, Martes, or Whitely from within to hit the rotation running mid-year, still have to be a front-office priorities. We now know we can’t rely on either Peacock or Sneed, and while Rogelio Armenteros promises to be a solid innings-eater, he is by no means outstanding.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The Athletic, that darn site I don’t want to pay for, published yesterday a story that confirms Wade Miley’s problem was a pitch tipping issue. Too bad he/we could not figure it out last September. It sure does explain how he just got 16 million over the next two years. Based on his earlier performance in 2019, the Reds might have just gotten a pretty good deal.

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    • Years ago I’d recall the Chronicle being littered with articles each February touting the next big thing for the Astros. I recall stories where they used performance at Tuscon to project that James Mouton would be winning a AAA crown after he claimed the ROY and that Eric Anthony would surely break Hank Aaron’s record within a couple years. Ok, that’s exaggeration, but it’s in line with most things I read from The Athletic. I’m glad I’m not paying for it. Wade Miley’s problem was not tipping pitches. Wade Miley’s problem was not locating his pitches. He was fantastic for the first four months and then couldn’t put the ball where he wanted it.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Pitch Tipping? Oh no! The other teams that were filming Miley such that the batter knew what pitch was coming . I’m sure there was somebody in the opposing dugout banging on a garbage can, whistling, coughing, sneezing, or something else. There needs to be an investigation with suspensions, firings, loss of draft choices, or batters having to use a whiffle ball bat for several games. Just a little sarcasm here.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. If you think Miley was tipping his pitches why didn’t Strom zero in on it?
    I don’t get it. McCullers is a big question mark, coming back from Tommy John is kinda tricky. If it were me I would start him in the bullpen as a long man for a month or so…that way you get to see how he’s pitching instead of handing him a rotation spot right off the bat. The Indians have placed a big price on Mike Clevenger, and I would bet money Luhnow is watching it. He is under team control for the next 3yrs, which suits Luhnow’s MO. He likes to get guys that he can control for more than one year. And….I bet Luhnow is watching Diamondbacks Robbie Ray as well.
    If McCullers is healthy and pitching well, that would do a LOT to calm nerves next year. I’m curious how Greinke pitches now that he isn’t in Cole and Verlander’s shadow. As weird as he is….he’s a dang good pitcher.
    Who’s gonna take me up on my bet about Clevenger?? I’m working on my attitude about all this other cr@p. Becky⚾

    Like

    • That sounds more like our Becky….
      Clevinger certainly would fit the budget better than Ray (Spotrac saying Clevinger would be $4.5 MM vs. Ray at $10.8 MM) Clevinger has pitched very well the last three seasons, but went from around 120 IP to 200 IP to 120 IP (a bit more than McCullers)
      My gut feel is that more likely Miley was suffering dead arm after going from 80 IP to 160 IP, which is why Strom would not have fixed him. But who knows

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  8. Well we all knew that day would come, yet against heavy odds.

    Devin: “I strongly feel that Hinch should limit the amount of innings thrown by the starters early in the season.”
    Devin: “Wade Miley’s problem was not locating his pitches.” (Caused a ridiculous high pitch count. )

    Anytime I agree with Devin twice in one day, then I take the rest of the day off to rest. Should there ever be a post or two that I agree twice with DaveB, then I will take a week off. Not for rest but to clear my head.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Remember that comment I made before he signed about NY knows Gerrit & Amy like good jazz and wine? SI just ran this story:

    “Yankees clubhouse manager Lou Cucuzza also played an unexpected role.

    Cucuzza and Cole had struck up a friendship during Cole’s visits to the Bronx. On one occasion, Cole told Cucuzza about a trip he took with his wife to Florence, Italy, and a meal they had there that included a bottle of one of the world’s best wines. When Yankees manager Aaron Boone walked into the room for the meeting with Cole, he was carrying two bottles of that same wine. Cole was floored.”

    Funny how it’s the little things…

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    • I’m sure you’re right, but in one game earlier this season I remarked that after Cole had finished his start, he left the clubhouse for a while and re-surfaced a few innings later. He had noticable purple lips. I’m also sure Crane/Hinch did everything to accomodate them while here. Cole was always going to follow the money, apparently.

      Especially after the fiasco in LAA; lack of leadership in the Marisnick incident, and subsequent findings after Skaggs of other players on pain pills there.

      Like

  10. Gerrit Cole took off his Astros hat and put on his Boras hat in the span of 10 minutes. It was a slap in the face of the team whose clubhouse he was standing in.
    Seven weeks and $324 milion later, he called the New York Yankees “the greatest organization in baseball” despite what happened for his career with Houston.
    $850 bottles of wine fit perfectly with a guy who thinks like that.
    Goodbye!

    Liked by 3 people

    • My comment falls under the category of people who live in glass houses, but my first reaction from the Gerrit Cole press conference was that he should have signed with another organization so as to not have to shave the beard.

      Like

      • I’m hoping he’s related to Samson as far as hair cutting goes.
        I did wonder – if he just dug his heels in and said he would only come to NYY unshaven

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      • Dan just because of your comment I’m gonna pull a Cole and shave for the first time in years lol. I have an Evan Gattis look currently…we shall see!

        Or not.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. I’ve already said this; I have no animosity towards Cole although clearly he was out the door likely even before the last pitch of the World Series was thrown. I suppose it would have been nice to hear him say how much the Astros had to do with helping him become the best pitcher in baseball. But life goes on. I just want to watch our guys get to Cole and beat the Yankees again in the ALCS come October..

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Just curious: who on our blog feels animosity – or in fact any negative emotion – toward the following:
    1. Gerrit Cole?
    2. Dallas Keuchel?
    3. Carlos Beltran?
    4. Alex Cora?
    5. Charlie Morton?
    6. Mike Fiers?
    7. Wade Miley?
    8. Marwin Gonzales?
    9. Roberto Osuna?

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      • 1) no
        2) I felt some when he was still here
        3) never got over 2005
        4) no

        5)no… still a fan of his
        6) I disliked him when he was here
        7( kind of feel bad for him
        8) why should I ?
        9) I was strongly against the trade…my opinion hasn’t changed one bit

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    • I harbor no animosity towards any of them. I am strongly disappointed in Cole, Beltran, and Morton for leaving Houston…but freely admit I don’t have all the facts. I have nothing but gratefulness in my heart for Marwin Gonzales who performed so much better in an Astros uniform, regardless of what he was asked to do, than he had any right to do based on his physical gifts. I am happy Keuchel got his money from someone other than Houston. The salary game in baseball makes players exploited early in their careers and then allows some to exploit their clubs later in their careers. it is what it is.

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  13. I’m glad Maldonado is back. He is very good defensively and has the better arm. Fangraphs just added another 1.1 WAR to the Astros major league leading total.

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  14. I have a theory about the Astros and pitching prospects. It’s my own so it’s probably silly. Or not.
    We all are aware that the new avenues of gaining info on pitchers is heavy into using new video technologies and then applying those. Over the last couple of years those technologies have been heavily used by the Astros to develop their major league pitchers and fix them. Other teams are using the same technologies.
    What I think the Astros are trying to do is to fix pitcher’s deliveries and tunneling problems before they hit the majors.
    Forrest Whitley has always had four good pitches and blew away HS and low minors batters with his stuff. But I believe the Astros used pitching technologies to recognize that Whitley’sw great pitches were coming from different planes and that when his big frame and slow delivery got to the majors, that other teams would quickly figure out what was coming by using their tech to break his delivery down in video.
    I think the Astros decided to fix his tunneling differences by syncing his delivery on his different pitches last year, which caused his extreme wildness as he adjusted arm slots to make it difficult for batters to read him. It took him all season to successfully make the changes, including some arm soreness coming from using new arm slots.
    In short, they decided to get him ready to pitch to major league hitters before he arrived in the majors.
    I believe they are now implementing major changes in Low A and High A with other pitchers like Jayson Schroeder, who came out of HS with four good pitches and good control, but suddenly can’t throw strikes in low minors because the Astros are making delivery changes now, rather than waiting until the upper minors like they did with Whitley.
    I believe that the Astros are making a concerted effort to get pitcher’s non-synced deliveries fixed early, so that by the time they get to AA and AAA they will be already using the proper tunneling and get to the majors with major league stuff, rather then just a good fastball and 2 or three other pitches that don’t sync with their fastballs.

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    • great comment op. i have tried to defend pitchers over the years that people have said ‘well they have just fallen apart’. in the majors everything is done with an eye on winning. in the minors they like to win, but sometimes that is secondary to getting someone to work on pitches or delivery so that they can win in the majors. happens alot. so i agree here with op above, i think whitley is gonna be a big part of the team in the future and the problems he has had the last year or two were simply him working on pitches and delivery. outstanding analysis by op.

      Like

    • It’s a good theory. I wonder how long it will be until one of our former pitchers sues the team for mistreatment and alleges that their handling of him prematurely cut his career short due to injury or poor performance.

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  15. I remember that there was an analysis done on Cole during the WS. They pointed out that his arm slot barely if ever changed when he threw a fastball, change up, or slider. Thus the batter could not recognized the pitch that was coming and thus was always guessing. maybe they will do the same for Whitley.

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  16. Maldonado caught LMJ and JV in 2018 and he caught JV, Greinke and Urquidy last year. Pretty sure he has caught Pressly, Osuna, James, Devenski, Biagini, Armenteros, Valdez, Smith and Peacock in the last two seasons.
    Stubbs has caught pretty much everybody in our AAA group, so we have catchers who can work with each other to learn all the guys they would need to catch.
    Familiarity breeds confidence.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I am wondering if Chirinos is this winter’s Maldonado. El Machete held out for more money and ended up getting less. My guess is JL decided he would take either, and who blinked got signed. I wish both catchers the best, but sometimes if doesn’t work to the advantage of the player, and sometimes is doesn’t work to the advantage of the club.

    And DK turned down $18 Million with Astros and a reported $90 Million earlier. He got $13 Million last year and $18 over next 3 years. Boras did his client no favors. I wish DK well with the White Sox.

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  18. And with the FA that have signed and getting more money than expected, where are all those reporters, agents, = and union reps complaining about collusion and conspiracy theories. Seems like those have been very quiet this year.

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  19. From a piece in MLB Trade Rumors:

    “Declining attendance be damned—MLB’s revenue streams are flowing fine. According to a Saturday piece from Forbes, gross revenues for the league were a record $10.7 billion for 2019, up from $10.3 billion last year, according to industry sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity. And the upward slant should continue in future years; as noted by Forbes, the league’s deal with Fox television kicks in during the 2022 season and that deal alone has a reported value of $5.1 billion. For those wondering, MLB player payroll and benefits came in at $4.7 billion last year—leaving plenty of pie to go around for administrators, front-office types and ownership figures. The league has seen adjusted revenue growth of 386% since 1992.”

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  20. The new agreement between MLB anfd the umpires association could be a game changer for the game of major league baseball.
    They agreed to help MLB install computerized strike zones.
    Imagine:
    No yelling at the ump from the dugout.
    Pitchers only being mad at themselves instead of umpires.
    Batters not being mad at umpires and griping about calls and walking around sulking.
    All the home plate umpiring being the same, so that pitching becomes the real focus instead of pitchers having to figure out the styles of 70 different umpires.
    Not having to put up with Joe West or fallen angel hernandez making balls and strikes calls and throwing players and managers out of the game.
    Imagine baseball getting 99% of the home plate calls right.
    It would be MLB’s own version of fantasy baseball come true.
    Imagine bad, overweight umpires sitting in recliners off to the side of home plate eating nachos and still getting the calls right.

    Like

    • One of the more entertaining things I watch on YouTube are the videos of players, managers, and sometimes fans getting thrown out of games for whatever reason. Sometimes the trend of watching a “sterilized” game does not sit too well with me. After all that will take away one of our more fun comments about the game. I guess it’s the price we pay for technology.

      BTW, let me take a moment to wish all a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Kwanzza, and a joyous Holiday Season this year!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Double ditto to the Z-man on Christmas, New Years, et al.

        As to electronic umpires, it will take me off this blog because I will have nothing to complain about.

        Nah, I am resilient. I will complain about closing the roof during inclement weather, or something just as silly.

        Liked by 1 person

  21. I don’t mean to be happy about the depriving of humor of others.
    What I want to see gone is Yordan Alvarez coming to the plate and having this great batting eye stolen from him by umpires who call outside pitches a strike on him in multiple at bats per game. It got to the point where it became obvious that the umpires in the playoffs were not going to allow him to dominate the at bats by taking bad pitches and only swinging at good ones.
    The deeper we got into the season the more obvious it was that umpires were going to do everything they could to prove to him that they were not going to let him take close pitches that were balls.

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    • The umpires know. The players know. The league knows. The fans know. They all know the umps suck behind the plate. In this case, technology makes the game better. Those fat umps lounging in a recliner though…..can we put the recliner in a cage back there? I don’t want Joe or Angel to take one in the noggin when they nod off.

      One thought. I wonder how effective a guy like Dallas Keuchel will be going up against a smart ump?

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  22. I wrote an article on RoboUmps, and took a poll. It was 3 to 1 in favor of replacing Balls/Strikes called by electronics.

    The problem is the technology is still not up to snuff. And frankly, if there was more accountability with keeping bad umps off the field, and good ones in the game, that would be one thing. The ump who called the last game of the WS (only one I am recalling) did a fantastic job. he was the highest rated among peers.

    Having umped a little myself, it’s definitely not easy.

    One interesting note about spotters for stat companies, for example, regarding soft, medium or hard hit balls — they have a 3-person “committee” to decide the answer. Not to suggest we do this, but B/S could be called by the same standard, and relayed to the ump. I would think that would delay the call too much from what we are used to.

    This is a tough issue, but same as stealing signs by electronics, the technology will push forward. Will the league try to meet it?

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    • As fans I think it’s important to remember what we expect is not necessarily what we will get. The NFL’s reviews on pass interference would be clearest example. There are lots of obvious instances where the challenge did not result in overruling the play on the field this year. Baseball replay is probably in the same boat. It seems to me like just about every tag play at 2B or 3B gets challenged. Unfortunately, Manfred is too busy wasting people’s time than trying to clean up ways to not waste the fan’s time. I’d personally change the rulebook such that a tag is only valid at the point in time it makes contact with the runner. This means if a runner’s foot bounces off the bag and a fielder maintains contact with the tag the runner would still be safe. A fielder would have to reapply a tag while the runner was not safely contacting the base. Then, I would institute a rule where all challenges are reviewed the following day by a team at MLB headquarters. Teams making the worst challenges would then be forced to apologize to the fans. Sorry for attempting to hijack on a tangent.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s funny, got a good-hearted laugh. I’ve seen that rule change idea, too, on the tag. “Like the old days,” I think it was compared to, as it relates to pushing a guy’s leg off the bag.

        The rule I’d very much like addressed is Catcher Interference. As we saw in the Marisnick case, that was vastly different than Rizzo trying to take a Catcher out.

        I don’t think the rule is enforced enough when the catcher is in limbo and drifting into the baseline, or completely blocking the plate when he doesn’t have the ball. I know it’s a VERY hard position to man, and they should be protected, but most plays I see, Umpires let those guys get in front with nowhere but to slide, except into them. That rule needs review and enforcement.

        Liked by 1 person

  23. As for Lance being the most vital cog, I’d say Alvarez is more important, since we have an influx of solid pitching, and less dominant hitters of his kind. Plus, he saw better pitching and game planning as the season went on, so Yordan’s sophomore season will be in focus.

    LMJ had this to say about the year ahead.

    Dec 11
    In 2015 I made every start I was able to make as the MLB level. The rest of the years I pitched with a torn ucl. If you think I am only pitching 120 IP while I am healthy everyone buggin
    ·
    Dec 11
    If I reach that plateau and feel good.. someone better cut my foot off or I’m running out there. I want to take the ball for the boys. I want to be healthy. I have worked too hard for it. I’m foaming at the mouth to pitch again. I need it.

    Liked by 2 people

  24. Pretty good article posted on CFB yesterday, from SI, written by Tom Verducci on baseballs past decade. In a flash, we’ve watched the game undergo perhaps more change in the last ten years than any other period. I just wish I knew how to attach the darn thing.

    Like

    • https://www.si.com/author/tom-verducci

      Since it’s Christmas, all you can eat Verducci. I used to love the guy (lots of analytics), but he went down a few notches for me this year. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Editor at SI, whose interest it was to push Apstein’s story, attached some ideas to Verducci’s articles. I uncovered a few inconsistencies he said, versus what our players said. But I digress.

      Merry Christmas!

      Like

  25. Astros web page shows the 40 man is full up. So I guess the rest of the news will be non-roster invitees to Spring Training. Unless they release a couple like Jack Mayfield. I am thinking a couple or more retread relievers like Cody Allen who was great at one time and terrible last year. Or maybe Garneau is this year’s Chris Herrmann.

    Like

  26. May all of you have a blessed and wonderful Christmas🎄! I will be in the kitchen most of the day tomorrow. I can’t get MLB TV in Houston but my Memphis grandchildren can, so I bought them the package for the 2020 season.
    Merry Christmas to all my Astros friends on this blog⚾ Becky

    Liked by 1 person

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