The good news the Orioles ended their week with on Sunday? The image of John Means, back on the mound after nearly two weeks away from the team.
The bad news? It was not the return Means or the team had hoped for. And he’s not going to be let loose on the American League in earnest for a while.
Making his first start in 12 days after the death of his father, Means endured the shortest start of his career in Baltimore’s 6-5 loss to the Nationals at Camden Yards. Though he was only scheduled to throw two innings at maximum, the three runs Means allowed in two-thirds of an inning marked the first time Means did not make it out of the first frame of a game he started.
“Today was an emotional day,” Means said. “It wasn’t easy, but it’s one of those things you have to do. It’s my job, so I have to go out there every five days.”
Now three starts into a season in which Means has had to battle arm issues and personal tragedy, the 2019 All-Star owns a 10.57 ERA. He was replaced Sunday by recently claimed right-hander Jorge López, who held Washington to two runs over four innings in his team debut. Speaking after the game, manager Brandon Hyde said the Orioles are considering piggybacking Means and López regularly going forward until Means builds his pitch count back up.
“He’s gone through a lot these last couple weeks.” Hyde said. “He’s still building, so this is kind of like a Spring Training for him.”
Though Means said physically he “feels great,” it could be weeks before the Orioles treat him as if he’s at full strength. Hyde said the goal would be for Means to throw 50 pitches next time out, with an eye toward increasing his pitch count by 15 in each successive outing. That puts him at no restrictions by the beginning of September, at the earliest.
“We’re going to do what’s best for John and the club,” Hyde said. “It won’t be for lack of effort on his part. He just had a setback early and then an unfortunate circumstance.”
Means ran into trouble immediately on Sunday. His afternoon began with an 11-pitch walk to Trea Turner, which preceded consecutive singles from Juan Soto, Asdrúbal Cabrera and Kurt Suzuki. Means retired Carter Kieboom with a sac fly and Josh Harrison via popout, but he had allowed three runs and thrown 34 pitches by the time Victor Robles looped an RBI single into left field.
It was a hole the Orioles’ upstart offense did well to climb out of, using two Anthony Santander homers and a three-run Pedro Severino shot off Nats ace Max Scherzer to tie the game after seven. But Rio Ruiz’s throwing error allowed Soto to scoot home with the go-ahead run in the eighth, sending Baltimore to just its second loss in nine games.
With nearly identical 396- and 409-foot homers down the right-field line, Santander became only the 11th player to take Scherzer deep twice in the same game. His 22 RBIs as of Sunday's final out led the AL.
“I was trying to be aggressive in the strike zone,” Santander said through team translator Ramon Alarcon. “He is definitely one of the best of all time, so I’m very thankful for that.”
Santander is a big reason the Orioles might be the biggest surprise of the 2020 season, and they can largely point to their pesky productive offense and improved bullpen as reasons for their 12-9 start. To remain contenders, though, it’s fair to assume they’ll need more from a rotation that currently ranks ninth among AL teams in innings and 10th in ERA. That unit’s biggest wild card so far has been Means, their ‘19 All-Star who has made a big velocity jump but is experiencing a disjointed year. First to interrupt his summer was a bout of left arm fatigue. The next obstacle was much more consequential. His father, Alan, had battled pancreatic cancer for almost a year.
“Getting back into the job, it's been tough,” Means said. “ I am looking forward to going out there again.”
So far, the Orioles' surprising start has come largely against teams they don't usually play very often. On Monday, Baltimore is up to the test against a traditional rival, when it opens its first series of the season against the Blue Jays at Camden Yards. The O's will line up against Toronto's $80 million lefty Hyun-Jin Ryu (1-1, 4.05 ERA) in the contest, which is scheduled to start at 7:35 p.m. ET, live on MLB.TV. The Orioles have not announced their starter for any game of the three-game series, though Alex Cobb (1-1, 2.75) would be in line to start Monday.