Now, slotting him in as the Opening Day starter feels like a given.
And after manager Brandon Hyde’s announcement Thursday morning, it became official once again.
Means, the Orioles’ staff ace, will get the ball for Baltimore’s opener against the Rays on April 8 in St. Petersburg, Hyde said, putting in ink a plan that has long been expected. Means will start his second consecutive Opening Day after leading the O’s to victory in the role in 2021 with seven shutout innings over the Red Sox.
“What he's done, really, the last three years, it was pretty obvious for us,” Hyde said. “John to me was one of the best pitchers in the game in the first half last year. Looking forward to him having another really good year, and he's in a great spot right now mentally, physically. Happy to give him the ball.”
It was a long expected decision, mostly in part because Means – an 11th-round Draft pick in 2014 – has been the Orioles’ best pitcher since he seized a starting spot for good in 2019.
And for the first time since Chris Tillman from 2014-16, the O’s will have the same Opening Day pitcher in consecutive years.
“I think it’s always a little bit of a surprise,” Means said. “You always get those butterflies when you’re told, so it’s still really, really cool.
“There's really nothing like it,” he added. “I’m sure playoff games are like that, too, but [I can only talk about what] I've experienced, so it's really cool. It's a type of adrenaline you never really feel throughout the season.”
So continues the storybook career progression for Means, who was on his couch in September 2018 when he got his surprise callup to the Majors. Means was the last player to make the roster out of Spring Training in ’19 and then made a surprise All-Star Game that year, threw a no-hitter in '21 and now has claimed his spot as Baltimore’s ace, vaulting from a a fringe roster selection to a long-relief arm to now a 3.82 career ERA.
It’s no happenstance that this assignment is conjoined with Means’ ascent up the Orioles’ clubhouse leadership ranks. Only one other player on the roster, Cedric Mullins, has represented Baltimore at the All-Star Game. (And really, Means appeared on track for a second nod in 2021 before a shoulder injury limited him to just 71 innings.)
Jordan Lyles, three years older than Means and with 289 games played under his belt, said he has a lot to learn from the southpaw. Young arms in the clubhouse, of which there are many, look up to Means’ blue-collar ascent, spending five quietly productive years in the Minors before his first chance in The Show. A near-career worth of experiences have come in just four captivating seasons.
“John's dealt with a lot,” Hyde said. “He broke with us a few years ago as a long man in our bullpen and he's earned his way into making two Opening Day starts. Credit to him for all the hard work. He's taken on a leadership role this spring more so than ever before. It's fun to watch a guy kind of turning into -- even though he's a young veteran -- a veteran-type pitcher.”
Truthfully, this should be Means’ third consecutive Opening Day nod. And bizarrely, this is his fourth time being giventhe responsibility. The lefty was on track to be the club’s Opening Day starter in Spring Training 2020 before the pandemic delayed the start to the season. Then he was named the Opening Day starter again during July Summer Camp, before arm fatigue landed him on the injured list to start the year and Tommy Milone made the start.
But now, with a clean bill of health and the respect of his entire clubhouse as their seasoned vet despite being just 28 years of age, Means will lead the Orioles into their 2022 campaign -- a season that promises to unveil some building excitement, with prospects and talent alike expected to join with Means in Baltimore.
He just hopes to start it on the right note.
“You just never know how the start of the season is going to go,” Means said. “You go up there and do your best.”