CLEVELAND -- As Orioles catcher James McCann jogged off the field and down the steps of the first-base dugout at the end of the eighth inning, he locked eyes with John Means, fresh off a dominant performance. All the two could do was smile.
It may not have ended up being a historic night, but it was a special one.
In his third big league start since returning from Tommy John surgery, Means flirted with a no-hitter in a 7 1/3-inning gem that powered Baltimore to a 2-1 victory Saturday night over Cleveland at Progressive Field. The 30-year-old left-hander allowed only one hit -- a solo homer to Andrés Giménez with two outs in the seventh that ended Means’ pursuit of his second career no-no.
Still, this was the type of night Means had yearned to experience again after a long journey. After his left ulnar collateral ligament was reconstructed in April 2022 -- and then he sustained a strain to his upper back during the recovery process this May -- Means is now pitching the most meaningful games of his six-year career with the Orioles, who lowered their magic number to clinch the American League East to five.
“It’s fun. You can’t beat it. You can’t get this feeling anywhere else,” Means said. “To be back with this team -- and after a win like that -- it’s big time.”
- Games remaining (7): at CLE (1), vs. WSH (2), vs. BOS (4)
- Standings update: The Orioles (96-59) and the Rays (95-61) are in a tight race atop the American League East, with Tampa Bay 1 1/2 games back. However, should that gap tighten further, Baltimore owns the tiebreaker by virtue of winning the season series between the two teams, 8-5. The AL East champion will be the No. 1 seed and get a bye into the best-of-five Division Series. If the O’s fall out of first place, they will be the No. 4 seed and host a best-of-three Wild Card Series at Camden Yards.
- Magic number for AL East: 5
Means, who recorded four strikeouts and picked up his first win since Sept. 20, 2021, was in control the entire way. He retired the first seven Cleveland batters and 22 of the 25 he faced on the night. His only blemishes prior to Giménez’s homer were a one-out walk to Myles Straw in the third and a two-out hit-by-pitch against Gabriel Arias in the fifth.
Even though Means hadn’t gone deeper than five innings or thrown more than 86 pitches in any of his six Minor League rehab outings or his first two starts since returning from the IL, he went to the mound for the eighth having thrown 90. The southpaw then got José Tena to ground out before he was removed after 96 pitches.
“For me, that was about as far as I could definitely take him, whether he had given up a hit or not,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Going 7 1/3 is absolutely unbelievable. The way he kept them off balance, fastball command, changeup command was really good, got a lot of early contact.”
It was the first time Means pitched more than seven innings since he threw the sixth no-hitter in Orioles history on May 5, 2021, at Seattle. His stuff may not have been quite as good, but he made things tough on Guardians hitters.
Like usual, Means relied mostly on his four-seam fastball (51 times) and his changeup (28) to induce a lot of soft contact. Cleveland put only one ball in play at an exit velocity of greater than 97 mph, per Statcast, and that was Giménez’s 102.7 mph, 406-foot homer to right.
“His fastball had some sneakiness to it, and he threw his changeup to both lefties and righties -- which you don't see a lot of -- and effectively,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “That fastball, it was getting past our barrels and getting in, and it kind of puts you in a little bit of a rocking chair back and forth."
Nine balls put in play against Means had an exit velocity of less than 80 mph and five at less than 61. He wasn’t generating much swing-and-miss (only six whiffs), but he also didn’t need to, as long as he could pitch well deep into the game.
“I felt good. I felt really good,” said Means, who threw 65 of his pitches for strikes. “Obviously, it’s no secret the bullpen has been taxed. So I just really wanted to attack the zone.”
Added McCann: “John was exactly what we needed tonight. Our bullpen has been stepping up huge for us all season long, and they needed a break and that’s exactly what John did.”
The Orioles, who had lost their previous three games, used 32 relievers over their previous six contests, a span in which none of their starters went more than six innings, and only one made it that far. Thanks to Means, Baltimore needed only Yennier Cano (two-thirds of a frame) and Cionel Pérez (a one-inning save) to close out its skid-ending victory.
McCann has caught two no-hitters -- Lucas Giolito of the White Sox (Aug. 25, 2020, vs. the Pirates) and a combined effort by five Mets pitchers (April 29, 2022, vs. the Phillies). The 33-year-old backstop said it was “deflating” when Means’ quest for another ended.
“He’s had one, I’ve had a couple and I think we both knew that we had a shot at another one,” McCann said.
But the Orioles held only a 2-1 lead at the time, and their primary objective is to capture their first AL East title since 2014. So Means and McCann quickly had to move past the home run and refocus on the task at hand.
Means delivered in a big way, and he could continue to do so when Baltimore plays in the postseason for the first time since 2016. He may only be three starts into his return -- over which he has a 2.60 ERA -- but he’s proving he could be a key contributor in October.
“It would have been nice to have him earlier,” McCann said. “But what he’s been able to do coming back, it’s been huge for us.”