BALTIMORE — When left-hander John Means took the mound at Oriole Park on Tuesday night, the Orioles could not have known what to expect.
It had been 17 months since the last time he pitched in a major league game and it was the first time he had ever taken the mound in the heat of a pennant race, so it probably wasn’t fair to expect anything more than a handful of innings and a few flashes of the brilliance he had shown in the past.
He delivered a bit more than that, throwing five solid innings and allowing three earned runs, but the line score and the outcome of the game were less important on this night than the reassurance that Means was ready to return to the team’s starting rotation for the most important 2 ½ weeks of this amazing season.
The good: He looked comfortable on the mound, threw his famous changeup effectively and didn’t walk a batter. He threw 55 of his 75 pitches for strikes and showed great poise working through a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the fourth inning and surrendering just one run.
The not-so-good: He allowed two home runs and was late covering first during that aforementioned bases-loaded situation, which ironically led to the two-homer performance by pinch-runner Richie Palacios that helped the St. Louis Cardinals even the three-game series with a 5-2 victory.
Second baseman Nolan Gorman had to leave the game after beating out the ball that loaded the bases. Palacios took his place in the batting order and homered – once off Means and once off reliever Jorge López,– in two ensuing at-bats.
That wasn’t great, of course, considering that the race for the American League East title is way too close for comfort, but the Orioles badly need the steadying influence Means could bring to a dependable starting rotation that has begun to show some cracks.
Right-hander Dean Kremer struggled with his command for the second start in a row on Monday night and the Orioles don’t know what to think about midseason acquisition Jack Flaherty, who has pitched more than five innings just once since his impressive O’s debut in early August. With 14-game winner Kyle Gibson also showing signs of fatigue, a solid Means – even for just two or three more regular season starts – could be a huge difference-maker.
“I thought Means threw the ball well,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “It was great seeing him out there. I’m sure he had a ton of butterflies. I have not talked to him since, but I thought he had really good stuff. I thought the fastball velocity looked good – 93, 94. Thought he had some good changeups. He made a mistake there with Palacios with the curveball, but the fastball and changeup were really good.”
Hyde was particularly impressed with the command Means displayed, considering how long it had been since his last major league appearance.
“He threw a ton of strikes … That’s something that he does,’’ Hyde said. “He looked like John Means. He threw strikes with his fastball. Really good changeup … I thought he was good.”
Means did admit to being nervous when he took the mound, but settled in quickly. He faced four batters in the first inning and threw just eight pitches, but one of them was a 93-mph fastball that slugger Paul Goldschmidt hammered over the center-field fence to give the Cardinals a quick lead. They would score in the second on a sacrifice fly by designated hitter Jordan Walker and added a third run on the first Palacios homer in the fourth.
“Once I got out there and started pitching, it felt natural,” Means said. “It was good … good enough maybe. I thought the changeup was good. The fastball was OK. I just had no breaking ball, so I’ll try to work on that in the coming days. Other than that, I felt comfortable.”
If he was satisfied with his overall performance, he was not happy with the outcome. Pitching for the first time under pennant-race pressure, he wanted more than just to prove that he was back from Tommy John surgery.
“I don’t really believe in moral victories, to be honest with you,” he said. “I wanted to get the win today but just didn’t quite pitch well enough.”
Maybe on another night, like seven of his team’s previous eight games, three runs over five innings would have been good enough.
“It’s great to see him pitch the way he did,’’ Hyde said. “Every game right now is important. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the best night offensively. We had traffic all night and couldn’t push runs across, but it was nice to see him out there.”