During the Orioles’ rebuild, “John Means Day” was created to recognize the only games in which fans actually believed Baltimore could win. Tuesday evening, the first such celebration in almost 17 months, instead offered an opportunity to recognize how much has changed in that time.
In his first start since April 13, 2022, Means — the 30-year-old left-hander who was comfortably the Orioles’ best starter during their lean season — allowed three runs over five innings in his long-awaited return from Tommy John Elbow rebuild. Although the performance ended in a series-tying loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, such results have become more unusual than expected for Baltimore.
“To be honest, I don’t really believe in moral victories,” Means said after his outing. “I wanted to get the win today. … But it’s fun to play for a winning club, to be in this clubhouse and to be part of this team.”
After starting for Baltimore for the second straight season last season, Means unexpectedly left his next game after four innings against the Milwaukee Brewers. That eventual loss in that night’s game gave the Orioles a 132-258 record since the start of 2019, the season in which Means was, in his opinion, the last player to crack his Opening Day roster, only to be called All-Star ended up being the runner-up for American League Rookie of the Year.
At the time, the loss of Means seemed to condemn Baltimore to another season as one of baseball’s worst teams. Instead, his absence made the club’s performance all the more impressive.
He left behind what manager Brandon Hyde described as “a team that had never won before.” But somehow it won without him. Between Means’ start with a torn ulnar collateral ligament and Tuesday’s comeback, the Orioles posted a 173-126 record, a 94-win pace. They finished last season as the top team in the American League, missing the playoffs. They are just days away from potentially becoming the first AL team to clinch a spot in 2023.
“We really believe that every time we show up to the park, we’re going to win every game,” said left fielder Austin Hays, one of three players in Tuesday’s lineup who survived the rebuild with Means. “No matter what last week looked like, what last game looked like, when we walk through the doors we truly believe we are going to win every game.”
That same feeling, Hays said, emanated on the days Means started, even if the Orioles were outmatched most other nights.
“He was the leader, the guy you knew was going to give you the best chance every fifth day,” Hays said.
Means’ injury meant he couldn’t officially be part of the turnaround, although he made regular appearances in the Orioles’ clubhouse during his rehab. He often spoke to the team about his desire to contribute to what had come, even without him.
He is one of a handful of Orioles whose careers in Baltimore included rebuilding the organization. The squad is now littered with the young players that have been acquired from it. Adleyrutschman, the 2019 No. 1 draft pick who made his debut less than a month after Means’ surgery, wasn’t behind the plate to catch him on Tuesday, but he certainly will at some point. Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg, Baltimore’s second selections in the 2019 and 2020 drafts respectively, occupied the left side of the infield behind Means. Even without All-Star closer Félix Bautista – perhaps he’s about to undergo Tommy John surgery – the backup players backing up Means are far more talented than their predecessors; Only two members of Baltimore’s bullpen shared a roster with Means before Tuesday, and one of them, Jorge López, had stints with two other teams between Means’ departure and return.
“A lot has happened since he left the mound here in April 2022,” said Executive Vice President and General Manager Mike Elias. “A lot has happened for us. A lot has happened for him. I think it was hard for him to see the team come around the corner and stand on the sideline. I know he’s really eager to come help.”
The rotation Means returns to is much different than the one he led. From 2019 to 2021, Orioles starters other than Means had a 6.10 ERA and allowed 1.96 home runs per nine innings, a metric in which no other club’s rotation exceeded 1.61. He joins a group that entered Tuesday with a modest 4.41 ERA and has been buoyed by its youth in recent weeks.
Only right-hander Dean Kremer previously alternated with Means and was hit early in the 2021 season, when Means was perhaps at his most dominant, throwing a no-hitter against the Seattle Mariners while posting a 1.79 ERA in his first 10 starts . Over the past two seasons, Kremer has proven to be generally reliable, joining Kyle Bradish and Grayson Rodriguez to form a trio of young right-handers poised to lead the Orioles’ rotation come October.
Means is also a candidate for such status, although Elias made it clear Monday that the organization recognizes what it is asking of him: returning from major surgery as a starting pitcher in the midst of a pennant race. Hyde can’t think of another pitcher who has done what Means does, but his teammates know what he can do.
“He’s always been a competitor,” said center fielder Cedric Mullins, who, like Means, was the All-Star representative on a bad Orioles team. “Day after day, every time he starts, great things are expected from him. Now it is no different. I think the expectations kind of stay the same, and I think he has higher expectations for himself.
“He always gives us a chance.”
During Means’ time as Baltimore’s ace, this season was largely irrelevant. Tuesday’s result aside, he could prove to be the most significant midseason addition for a team that holds a three-game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL East. He said he spent his absence mentally preparing for this time of year.
“I’ve had a lot of time to work on it over the last couple of seasons,” Means said.
The veterans of Baltimore’s six-man rotation, Kyle Gibson and Jack Flaherty, have struggled to be consistent, and that trait alone – one that largely defined his tenure before the injury – could be enough for Means to earn a spot in the Orioles’ league to back up. Postseason rotation.
At the moment he is in the regular season version. After almost a year and a half, this is a reason to celebrate.
Cardinals in Orioles
Wednesday, 6:35 p.m
Radio: 97.9FM, 101.5FM, 1090AM
https://www.twincities.com/2023/09/13/return-of-john-means-day-offers-reminder-of-how-far-orioles-have-come-analysis/ The return of “John Means Day” is a reminder of how far the Orioles have come