Since the Orioles last made the postseason in 2016, they’ve suffered through four straight losing seasons. Three years ago, they lost 115 games, a franchise worst, and change was in order.
On Wednesday, John Means, who pitched in his first major league game in the final week of that lost 2018 season, threw a spectacular game, the franchise’s sixth no-hitter. He didn’t walk a batter, struck out 12, and threw first-pitch strikes to 26 of the 27 batters. The only runner who reached, Seattle’s Sam Haggerty, came on a wild pitch, and he was thrown out trying to steal.
After that awful 2018, came 108 more losses in 2019, and then incremental improvement in the pandemic-shortened 60-game 2020 season. This year, the Orioles return from a trip to Oakland and Seattle with wins in four of six games and a 15-16 record.
On Friday night, they’ll play the Boston Red Sox in the first of a four-game series, and the Orioles will try for the seventh time to reach the .500 mark.
The season isn’t even 20 percent complete, but Means’ performance and their play on the West Coast has given fans something positive to grasp.
“The last three outs, seeing how the teammates embraced him, our clubhouse after the game, it was like we clinched a playoff spot,” manager Brandon Hyde said after Means completed the no-hitter.
It was just one win, but it’s come from a pitcher who has been sensational in 2021. Means’ ERA in seven starts is 1.37, and he’s become a legitimate front-line pitcher, an ace.
“He’s definitely pitching like one,” Hyde said “There’s no doubt about that. He has pitched like one from September last year through this year. Aces not only give you a chance to win the game, but they go long. They can battle throughout a game. They give bullpens a rest, and they make big pitches in big spots late in a game, and you have a longer leash because of that, and John Means is at that point.”
In Hyde’s three seasons as manager, he’d never allowed a pitcher to even record the second out of the eighth inning, much less complete a game.
Now that Means has thrown the first no-hitter by a single Oriole pitcher since Jim Palmer on August 13, 1969, is it fair to ask if this could be a pivotal game?
“We just haven’t had a lot to cheer for the last couple of years,” Hyde said. “These guys haven’t had the opportunity to celebrate a lot of things. Two years ago, it was rough. Staying competitive last year. To watch our guys celebrate, that’s a cool moment because this is a tough game. To watch one of your teammates, your brothers, do something really special, is pretty cool.”
When Palmer pitched his no-hitter in 1969, the Orioles had already won a World Series and were on their way to an easy win in the American League East. He thinks Means’ emergence is key.
“You’ve got to have an ace,” Palmer said after watching Means’ no-hitter.
“Not to say that [former pitching coach] Doug Brocail didn’t do a good job last year, because he did, but his career changed orbit, so to speak, when [current pitching coach] Chris Holt taught him the changeup.”
Palmer sees a team that’s on the rise with draft picks.
“You get [Dean] Kremer in the Manny [Machado] deal. You’ve got the next wave. The future of the Orioles, it’s Adley Rutschman, maybe Heston Kjerstad, Jordan Westburg, all the young players.
“If you want to win, year-in and year-out, it’s nice to have complete teams like I played on, but you want to have good pitching. If you have John Means, and Kremer comes along, and all of a sudden, DL Hall pitches great in his first game, and then Grayson Rodriguez, everybody raves about him, you’ve got [Zac] Lowther and [Keegan] Akin, and I don’t know if Bruce Zimmermann rates stuff-wise with those guys, but you have this new wave of pitching coming, and that’s how you turn franchises around.
“I’m not going to speak for [general manager] Mike Elias, but I think it accelerates if you have great pitching and you have all these young talents, and who knows some of the young guys they got in the [Dylan] Bundy trade, whatever, where they’re going to fall. All of a sudden, you have players to go out and get a Gerrit Cole and get a [Justin] Verlander. That’s how Houston did it.”
Since the rebuild began with the hiring of Elias and Hyde in late 2018, the Orioles have been a team with players who are not well known.
Trey Mancini’s battle with colon cancer created a stir during spring training and early in the season, and Means’ no-hitter might get the national fanbase more familiar with this team.
“It’s about time,” Means said. “I think we have a lot of fun guys to watch. I think we have some great hitters, [Cedric] Mullins, [Austin] Hays, Mancini, and there’s a bunch of them, and a great bullpen, and a great rotation. I think we have a really good team. It’s about time people started to pay attention.”