Starting lineups: Nats vs. Astros in West Palm Beach

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Welcome to the 2024 Grapefruit League season, everyone! The Nationals open exhibition play tonight with a home game against their spring complex co-habitants, the Astros, at the newly renamed CACTI Park of the Palm Beaches. The facility, which first opened in 2017, is being rededicated tonight, with special guest Travis Scott (who founded CACTI hard seltzers, in addition to being a Grammy-winning rap artist) throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to Josiah Gray.

As for the game itself, the Nationals will be trotting out what could be their Opening Day lineup. The batting order could be switched around from this, but for now it’s a 3-4-5-6 of Joey Gallo, Joey Meneses, Jesse Winker and Keibert Ruiz. Interesting twist: Gallo is at first base, with Meneses serving as designated hitter after a winter spent talking about how he may be a more productive hitter when he’s also playing the field. Again, this is just one game, so don’t draw any conclusions until we have more lineups to consider.

All of those starters are scheduled to take one or two at-bats before departing. That means plenty of playing time for backups, and tonight that will include three top outfield prospects: Robert Hassell III in left field, Dylan Crews in center field, James Wood in right field. That will be fun to watch.

Patrick Corbin gets the start, scheduled for two innings and 35 pitches. And he’ll be followed by two more starters: Jackson Rutledge and Joan Adon, each also scheduled for two innings and 35 pitches. Eventually, we’ll see a few relievers.

If you’re interested in watching tonight’s game, you can pick up the Astros’ TV broadcast on MLB.tv and tape-delayed at 10 p.m. on MLB Network. You can also listen to Charlie Slowes and Dave Jageler on nationals.com.

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What to watch for in tonight's exhibition opener

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – It’s been exactly 145 days since the Nationals last played a baseball game. That dry spell ends tonight, and even though it’s merely opening night for the Grapefruit League season, it’s still a whole lot better than not playing a baseball game, right?

The Nats’ first of 31 exhibition games over the next month is a Saturday night home game against an Astros club that shares the same spring complex with them. The recently renamed CACTI Park of the Palm Beaches will be re-dedicated, with Houston rap star (and CACTI hard seltzer founder) Travis Scott throwing out the ceremonial first pitch to Josiah Gray.

Then everyone gets down to business, and there’s plenty of business at hand for the Nationals. Here are some things to watch for tonight …

* Which regulars will play?
Davey Martinez didn’t divulge any details about his starting lineup in advance, other than saying CJ Abrams will be leading off. Most of the projected regulars should be playing as well, but we’ll have to wait to find out for sure.

It will, of course, be interesting (and perhaps telling) where a handful of guys are playing. Is Joey Meneses the opening night first baseman, or will Joey Gallo get that honor? If not, will Gallo be in left field? Are Luis García Jr. and Victor Robles both starting, and if so, will they feel pressure to do something of note in their spring debuts, given the tenuous hold each has on his respective starting job?

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More relaxed Meneses seeks return of home run power

Joey Meneses

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Nothing has ever been handed to Joey Meneses. He’s always had to earn his way through baseball, up to and including his long-awaited major-league debut in 2022.

Which is why, even on the heels of his remarkable opening two months with the Nationals, Meneses acted last season like he still needed to prove he deserved the job.

As he now prepares for his third season in the big leagues, the 31-year-old first baseman finally acknowledges he worries less about his standing on the roster.

“Maybe a little bit relaxed on that part,” he said. “But I don’t like to think this year is going to be easy. The first year, you want to prove you can do it. This year, I’m a little more relaxed.”

Meneses is in no danger of being cut at the end of spring training. Barring an injury, he’s going to be in the Nats’ Opening Day lineup, almost certainly somewhere in the middle of that lineup, tasked with delivering clutch hits the way he did last year. He may or may not be part of the organization’s long-term plan, but he’s most definitely part of the short-term plan.

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Can Nats expect improved defense this season?

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We’ve spent much of the winter discussing the Nationals’ offensive strengths and weaknesses, asking if the changes they’ve made will make a positive difference this season. We looked at the pitching staff and wondered where the improvement will come from in 2024.

But what about the Nats’ defense? Should it be improved from last season? Could it be worse? It’s about time we tackled that subject as we move within a week of the start of spring training.

For those who don’t remember, the Nationals were not a good defensive team in 2023. They were 26th in the majors (tied with the Phillies) with minus-30 Defensive Runs Saved. They were charged with 90 errors, ranking in the bottom half of the league. Their “Defensive Efficiency” – the percentage of balls in play they converted into outs – was 68.2 percent, ranked 24th. Their catchers threw out only 14 basestealers, tied for second-fewest in the majors.

Which isn’t to say everything was bad in the field.

CJ Abrams made major strides at shortstop, and by season’s end he was both making all the routine plays as well as a number of non-routine plays, looking every bit like a keeper there.

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With Gallo signing, Nats lineup starting to take shape

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It was a tricky task just days ago: For this week’s “The Hot Stove Show” on MASN All Access, I was struggling to put together a potential Opening Day starting defensive lineup graphic with the Nationals roster as it stood at the time.

Some positions were obvious: Keibert Ruiz was the starting catcher, CJ Abrams at shortstop and Lane Thomas in right field.

Some I could piece together: At the Winter Meetings, general manager Mike Rizzo and skipper Davey Martinez said Joey Meneses was going to play more first base. When Nick Senzel signed, he said he was being brought in to be the everyday third baseman. And until some prospects get more seasoning, no one is immediately pressing Luis García Jr. or Victor Robles for their jobs at second base and center field, respectively. (Yet.)

The starting pitcher came down to Josiah Gray and MacKenzie Gore. I went with Gray as he has tenure with the team and was the more consistent pitcher over the course of last season. It seemed the most logical choice, with the idea that short of an injury, Gore would have to very obviously outperform Gray in camp to get the Opening Day duties instead.

That left the designated hitter, left field and three bench spots open.

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Where can the Nationals find more power in 2024?

Joey Meneses

The Nationals’ acquisition of Joey Gallo this week – which still won’t be official for another day or two, by the way – was made with one primary purpose in mind: To inject some power into a lineup that sorely needs it.

The Nats ranked last in the National League with 151 home runs last season. And they had only one individual player top 18 homers: Lane Thomas, who finished with 28.

Gallo, for those who don’t know, has averaged 30 homers in each of his last six full major-league seasons and hit 38 as recently as 2021 with the Rangers and Yankees. He hit only 21 last year with the Twins, but he did that in only 332 plate appearances. His 6.3 percent home run rate was actually right in line with his career average, not to mention more than double the major-league average.

So, Gallo’s presence is going to help the Nationals. But he alone isn’t going to turn the league’s worst power-hitting lineup into even an average one. For that, the Nats will need blasts from others.

There’s still a reasonable chance Mike Rizzo adds another bat this winter, because at the moment the team’s Opening Day designated hitter appears to be … Riley Adams? Jake Alu? Stone Garrett (if he’s healthy)? The options aren’t great, so it wouldn’t be surprising if Rizzo spends a bit more money on another hitter with power potential.

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Does Meneses fit into Nationals' first base plans?

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As the final shopping week before Christmas arrives, we’re left wondering if the Nationals intend to make any more purchases in the coming days, or if they’re content to wait until after the holidays.

To date, they’ve addressed their short-term need at third base (Nick Senzel) and their need for bullpen depth (Dylan Floro). That still leaves first base, left field and the back of the rotation to be addressed.

Like third base, the Nats figure to treat left field and the back of the rotation as short-term fixes as well, knowing they’ve got top prospects knocking on the door at all three of those positions (Brady House, James Wood, a healthy Cade Cavalli). But the situation at first base isn’t as clear-cut.

The Nationals don’t have an obvious long-term first baseman in their farm system. Of course, first basemen often come from some other position, so it’s not necessarily a problem they don’t already have somebody in the minors targeted for that spot.

But where does that leave them right now? If they wanted to make a multi-year commitment, they certainly could. The problem: The notable free agents who fit that bill (Cody Bellinger, Rhys Hoskins) aren’t cheap. The Nats have been in touch with Hoskins, according to a source familiar with the discussions, but aren’t likely to get into a bidding war for the 30-year-old former Phillie, who missed all of this season with a torn ACL.

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Martinez on Meneses at first, adding more power and more

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NASHVILLE – Teams arrived at the Gaylord Opryland Resort with their wish lists as they prepare to construct their rosters for next season. Whether through trades or free agency, each major league club has holes to fill.

When speaking to the media during baseball’s biggest offseason event, general managers usually mention what they’re looking to add. Managers discuss what they already have on the roster and what they wish they did.

Davey Martinez touched on all of the above when speaking to a group of local media members on Monday afternoon for his only scheduled session this week.

It’s no secret the Nats are looking to add more power to their lineup next season after hitting a league-worst 151 home runs, second only to the Guardians for the fewest in the majors. Martinez believes it can come from both within and outside the organization.

“I think it's going to be both. I really do,” the skipper said. “As you can see, some of our young players started getting it towards the end there. I think there's still a lot more out of CJ (Abrams), out of Keibert (Ruiz) and some of our younger guys.”

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Offseason lineup needs look familiar for Nationals

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At this point 12 months ago, the Nationals had three holes to fill in their 2023 starting lineup. They needed a left fielder. They needed a third baseman. And, after choosing not to tender a contract to Luke Voit, they needed a first baseman (or designated hitter).

Mike Rizzo promptly filled all three of those holes in the form of Corey Dickerson, Jeimer Candelario and Dominic Smith, who combined made less than $10 million. One of them worked out wonderfully and was flipped at the trade deadline for a pitching prospect who could make his major league debut next season. The other two didn’t work out at all, with Dickerson injured and unproductive and out of a job by early August, and Smith offering smooth defensive work but not nearly enough offense at a traditionally offense-first position.

So as they progress into the heart of this offseason, the Nationals find themselves yet again with three lineup holes to fill. They need a left fielder. They need a third baseman. And, after choosing to designate Smith for assignment this week, they need a first baseman (or DH).

There are, to be fair, some potential in-house options at each position. Stone Garrett could be the starting left fielder, but how confident is the team in his ability to be 100 percent recovered from a gruesome broken leg by Opening Day? Carter Kieboom or Ildemaro Vargas or Jake Alu could be the third baseman, but none provides the kind of assured offense you’d think the Nats prefer at that position. And they could make Joey Meneses their regular first baseman and hope his defense is good enough, but even then, would still need to find another DH.

So, it feels like Rizzo is probably going to be looking once again to fill all three of those holes from outside the organization.

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Nats will again be in the market for a first baseman

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We knew there would be news Tuesday, what with the Nationals facing a late-afternoon deadline to add players to the 40-man roster and protect them from being lost in the Rule 5 draft. We didn’t know there would be quite this much news, though.

While the promotions of pitchers DJ Herz, Mitchell Parker, Cole Henry and Zach Brzykcy to the 40-man roster were newsworthy, the bigger story wound up being one of the corresponding moves made to clear spots for those prospects: Dominic Smith was designated for assignment.

This isn’t to suggest Smith was always a lock to return in 2024 after a very disappointing 2023 at the plate. But here’s what Mike Rizzo had to say when asked during the season’s final week about the roles both Smith and Jeimer Candelario played after they were signed the previous winter:

“Dom’s shown that his leadership in the infield, I think he’s made our young infielders much, much better and much more confident defensively,” Rizzo said. “And he’s starting to show some power late in the season. Those are always the type of people that you want to acquire, and guys that when you’re at this point in the rebuild, I thought was important for us to acquire.”

Smith was never supposed to be part of the long-term plan around here. But with no obvious replacement at first base waiting in the wings and based on the way both Rizzo and manager Davey Martinez talked about him at season’s end, it felt like he would be back for another year.

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Despite lack of homers, Meneses delivered for Nats

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PLAYER REVIEW: JOEY MENESES

Age on Opening Day 2024: 31

How acquired: Signed as minor league free agent, January 2022

MLB service time: 1 year, 65 days

2023 salary: $723,300

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Revisiting our 2023 Opening Day predictions

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Never let it be said we don’t hold ourselves accountable around here. For more than a decade, all of us who cover the Nationals have made Opening Day predictions for the coming season. And each year, we revisit those predictions and reveal just how we all did.

Some years, we have a pretty good take on things large and small. Other years, we don’t come close to getting anything right. This year was a mixed bag. While as a group we did pretty well in some categories, we completely whiffed on some others.

As always, a profound thanks to all my colleagues who were willing to subject themselves to this particular form of torture. And with that, here’s how we did in 2023 …

WHICH NATIONALS WILL BE SELECTED FOR THE ALL-STAR GAME?
Bobby Blanco (MASNsports.com) – Keibert Ruiz
Jessica Camerato (MLB.com) – Keibert Ruiz
Jesse Dougherty (Washington Post) – Hunter Harvey
Andrew Golden (Washington Post) – Joey Meneses
Craig Heist (106.7 The Fan) – Keibert Ruiz, Dominic Smith
Chelsea Janes (Washington Post) – Keibert Ruiz
Bill Ladson (MLB.com honorary) – Josiah Gray, Keibert Ruiz
Mark Zuckerman (MASNsports.com) – Joey Meneses

Correct answer: Josiah Gray earned the first All-Star selection of his career with a strong first half. The right-hander struggled for a good chunk of the second half but did close strong to finish with a respectable 3.91 ERA.

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Nats score early, not late, in penultimate-game loss to Braves (updated)

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ATLANTA – Davey Martinez was prepared to go to his “A” bullpen again tonight, prepared to ask Hunter Harvey and Kyle Finnegan to close out one more game that was there for the taking late.

Just one problem: The Nationals lineup couldn’t do its part to make up a two-run deficit to the Braves. Or score after the first inning, for that matter.

Despite jumping out to a quick lead against Atlanta ace Spencer Strider, the Nats went silent at the plate the rest of the night and wound up losing 5-3 in the season’s penultimate game.

So instead of handing the ball to Harvey and Finnegan at the end, Martinez instead went to Cory Abbott and, ultimately, Tanner Rainey, who pitched the bottom of the eighth in his first major league appearance since July 10, 2022, after which he needed Tommy John surgery.

Rainey, at one point last season the Nationals’ closer, tossed a scoreless inning allowing an infield single and a walk on 18 pitches, his fastball hitting 96-97 mph, his slider striking out Orlando Arcia. It was just one more step – albeit a big one – in a long-term rehab plan the team hopes ends with the hard-throwing right-hander holding a prominent role in next year’s bullpen.

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What's still at stake for Nats in season's final weekend

CJ Abrams

We have reached the final weekend of the 2023 season, with the Nationals closing things up in Atlanta against a Braves team that already locked up a sixth straight division title and owns the majors’ best record.

In the big picture, there’s not a whole lot at stake at Truist Park over the next three nights. Which isn’t to say there’s nothing at stake. On a smaller scale, and for several individual players, there are goals still within reach.

Here are a few things to watch for in Games 160, 161 and 162 …

* Nats try to get to 70
Does it matter if the Nationals finish with 69 wins, 70 wins, 71 wins or 72 wins? Not really. But there is a symbolic reason for them to want to at least get to 70. After going 55-107 last season, a 15-game improvement would be considerable. And there’s just something that makes 70 wins sound more respectable than 69 wins.

Not long ago, 70 appeared to be a lock, and 75 or more was within reach. Following back-to-back wins in Miami in late-August, the Nats were 61-69, which equated to 76-86 over the full season. But they’ve gone a dismal 8-21 since then, and now they find themselves still needing to eke out one more win this weekend to at least get to 70.

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Nats enjoy rare laugher, take series from White Sox (updated)

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There have been precious few of these – genuine laughers – during the course of the season, certainly over the last month-plus as the Nationals have needed to scratch and claw their way to any win they could secure.

The Nats hadn’t won a game by more than four runs since Aug. 11 against the Athletics. They hadn’t won a game by more than six runs since July 22 against the Giants. They hadn't won a game by 10 or more runs since April 29, 2022.

So consider this afternoon’s 13-3 thumping of the White Sox a much-needed, well-deserved walk in the park. A team that has looked like it’s running on fumes down the stretch of the season finally had an opportunity to enjoy a victory that was firmly in their grasp the entire way.

"It's great anytime we can score some runs early, score a lot of runs and pitch well," first baseman Dominic Smith said. "Those games are fun. Those are my favorite games."

In the process today, the Nationals secured their 18th series victory of the season, six more than they managed during their nightmare of a 55-107 campaign in 2022. With nine games left on schedule, but all coming against the teams with the two best records in baseball in the Braves and Orioles, it was imperative to lock up wins No. 67 and 68 against the White Sox now to make the path to 70 by season’s end a bit more palatable.

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Meneses' big blast rewards Rutledge's quality start (updated)

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The most important development of tonight’s ballgame on South Capitol Street was Jackson Rutledge’s second career start, one that saw the rookie right-hander reach the seventh inning on 78 pitches and allow only two runs.

The most satisfying moment of tonight’s game, though, came on one big swing from Joey Meneses, which ensured Rutledge’s quality start wouldn’t be for naught.

Meneses’ pinch-hit, three-run homer in the bottom of the seventh provided the clutch hit the Nationals had been seeking all night and ultimately propelled them to a 4-3 victory over the White Sox.

"It was beautiful," manager Davey Martinez said. "One thing I know about Joey: You put runners on base, there's a good chance he's going to hit it hard."

Shut down throughout the evening by José Ureña, who spent the summer pitching for Triple-A Rochester before getting released and picked up by Chicago, the Nats finally did something at the plate once they had the chance to face the White Sox bullpen.

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Walks doom Adon in loss to Pirates (updated)

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PITTSBURGH – Joan Adon has been a mixed bag of results since he rejoined the Nationals rotation as its sixth man in early August. But the one constant was his results on the road.

For whatever reason, his two best outings came in his two starts away from Nationals Park. He took a perfect game into the sixth inning on Aug. 5 in Cincinnati, settling for a quality start of three runs in six frames, and then took a no-hitter into the sixth inning on Aug. 25 in Miami, settling for six shutout innings.

But Adon could not keep that streak going as he got knocked around by the Pirates in an eventual 5-1 loss in front of an announced crowd of 9,222 on a cool night at PNC Park.

As has been the case in previous rough outings, Adon struggled with walks and home runs tonight. Between those two starts in Cincinnati and Miami, he issued no walks and only allowed one homer. In his four other starts (all at home), he surrendered eight walks and two homers.

Adon issued a career-high six walks (one intentional) and a two-run home run to Joshua Palacios on his way to being charged with eight hits and four runs in just four innings plus three batters.

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Meneses embraces role as Nats' top run producer

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TORONTO – Early this season, when the prospect of hitting a home run felt like the toughest challenge in the world, Joey Meneses tried to remember there were other ways to be a productive offensive player.

“We talked a lot the beginning of the year about him wanting to hit more home runs,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said. “But I told him: ‘Look, you’re driving in runs, and that’s really important. The home runs will come.’ Which they did. But more so than that, he’s become that clutch RBI guy for us.”

The homers did come in a brief spurt earlier this summer, with Meneses hitting nine of his 11 in a 26-game span from July 7-Aug. 8. But for the most part, the 31-year-old designated hitter has needed to turn to a different skill to feel like he’s fully contributing to the team’s cause: Driving runners in from scoring position.

Meneses continues to excel in that department, and he was up to his old tricks again Monday night, delivering an RBI single in the first and a two-run double in the fifth to account for all of the Nats’ runs during a 6-3 loss to the Blue Jays.

Those were the Nationals’ only two hits in 11 at-bats with runners in scoring position, a frustrating fact about a frustrating loss. But it was merely a continuation of the job Meneses has been doing all season, even when he’s not hitting for power.

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Nats can't overcome Gray's early exit, lose to Jays (updated)

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TORONTO – It would be one thing if this dud of a start from Josiah Gray came out of nowhere, if it was a surprising blip on an otherwise clean radar and could be brushed off as simply a bad night.

Unfortunately, this felt more like the inevitable low point of a bad month for the Nationals’ young right-hander, who lasted only two innings while allowing four runs and digging his team into an early hole it could not escape during an eventual 6-3 loss to the Blue Jays.

Unable to find the strike zone with any consistency, and unable to pitch his way out of jams the way he did earlier this season, Gray wasn’t even given the opportunity to try to right his ship this time. Davey Martinez turned to his bullpen early in hopes of keeping the game close.

"I just didn't have it today," Gray said. "I feel for the guys in the bullpen. Having to cover six innings is never easy. I just feel for those guys. Obviously, want to continue to throw the ball out there and keep the team somewhat in the game. But I just didn't have it today."

The bullpen did keep the deficit within striking distance. The Nats lineup, though, couldn’t make the most of early scoring opportunities against Kevin Gausman, going 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position and then getting shut down completely by the Toronto bullpen.

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A day the Nationals (and Little Leaguers) will never forget

Josiah Gray LLWS

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. – Every member of the Nationals’ traveling party arrived here Sunday morning with some personal expectation what the experience would be like. And every one of them left town at the end of the night with the same reaction: It was nothing like they expected it to be. It was so much more than that.

CJ Abrams: “Growing up and watching Little League, and actually getting to go to the field, it’s a lot more exciting than you think it is.”

Josiah Gray: “A lot bigger than I expected. Because on TV, you see just the field and some of the crowd. But to see the field itself and how big the stands were, along with how expansive the hill was, it was huge.”

Kyle Finnegan: “It was pretty crazy. A lot of kids, a lot of fans.”

Davey Martinez: “It blew me away. TV doesn’t do it any justice of what it is. I was amazed.”

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