When the Orioles began the 1988 season with 21 straight losses and finished with a then-franchise record of 107 defeats, they had two Hall of Famers — Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken Jr.
The 2021 Orioles have no likely Hall of Famers, but they do have centerfielder Cedric Mullins, who’s nearing 30 home runs and 30 stolen bases, which would be a first for the Orioles. They also have Rookie of the Year candidate Ryan Mountcastle, who passed Ripken’s record for most home runs by a rookie by hitting his 29th in Thursday night’s 3-2, 10-inning win over the Yankees.
The development of Mullins and Mountcastle has been fun to watch, but there are two other players — Trey Mancini and John Means — who have provided veteran leadership for a young and struggling team.
Mancini’s battle with colon cancer has been well documented and his willingness to talk about the struggle and the generosity with his time has been lauded. After the first home game of the season, Mancini tried to turn his attention back to baseball and was critical of his performance. He tried to approach this season with a different perspective after missing 2020, but he’s often hard on himself.
Mancini’s statistics are solid: 21 homers, 66 RBIs, .261 average and .786 OPS. They’re just not as good as they were in 2019, when he had 35 home runs and 97 RBIs.
He didn’t cut himself any slack this season, rebuilding his strength as soon as his chemotherapy treatments ended, setting an example of leadership. His next excuse will be his first.
Means doesn’t have the same story, but he does share some of the same qualities. He pitched the Orioles’ first solo no-hitter on May 5th but has won just once in 16 starts since then.
His 5-7 record is unimpressive, but a 3.41 ERA and a 4.3 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), sixth among all American League pitchers, are.
It’s hard to pitch for a bad team. There might be an exception like the exceptional Steve Carlton, who won 27 games in 1972 for a Philadelphia Phillies team that won just 59. But generally standout pitchers, like Means, fail to be rewarded when their teams play poorly.
After Means allowed just two runs on four hits in 5 2/3 innings in Wednesday night’s 4-3 loss to the Yankees, he said that he was fortunate that he had command of his fastball because his other pitches weren’t sharp.
Means doesn’t complain about an offense that doesn’t support him or a bullpen that doesn’t hold leads.
“John has really turned into a pro,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “When he takes the mound and he takes the ball, it’s his start, and he feels like he should win the game. We didn’t help him out [Wednesday] night at all, by not scoring early, giving him an opportunity to pitch with a lead. It’s very difficult against a lineup like that.
“He’s so hard on himself. He’s very self-critical. He didn’t have a good changeup [Wednesday] night. That was really bothering him. Even though he didn’t have his best stuff, to be able to get in his [nearly] six innings, leave giving up two runs, it’s an outstanding start. More times than not, you’re leaving with a lead in that kind of situation. He’s tough on himself.”
Hyde hopes the younger pitchers are paying attention.
“The guys who have been here haven’t been here very long, so I’m hoping that they can soak up John’s competitiveness and the intensity,” Hyde said.
During his time with the Chicago Cubs, he remembers how starters such as Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey and Jon Lester impressed him by how they approached a start. In his first months with the Orioles, he felt the same way about Andrew Cashner.
“Game day, you can tell it’s different,” Hyde said. “The good starting pitchers I’ve been around, they’re in a different mood on the day they start.There’s a different feel in the clubhouse when they’re on the mound, and it’s a real businesslike atmosphere, and that’s how Meansy is.”
If the Orioles were to make Means, who is entering his first year of arbitration eligibility, available in a trade, teams would line up to bid on him.
They need for Means to continue to be the No. 1 starter and serve as an example of accountability. It’s what has also earned Mancini so much respect among his peers. It’s why the Orioles have two strong leaders in the clubhouse.