Means shrugs off early trouble in first outing of spring

March 22nd, 2022

BRADENTON, Fla. -- The John Means of yesteryear might have reacted differently to Tuesday’s Grapefruit League outing against the Pirates at LECOM Park, a 10-9 Baltimore win. After a smooth first two innings, he ran into trouble in the third, recording just a single out and watching four runs (three earned) creep onto his ledger.

Not long ago, Means was merely a big league hopeful, the final player to make the roster in 2019 at 25 years old after he'd weighed thoughts of a possible retirement. Back then he might have worried about what a tough Grapefruit League inning would mean to his roster chances, although he began the 2019 season as a reliever and ended it as an All-Star.

Now, one of just two starters cemented in the Orioles' rotation and coming off a no-hitter in ’21, he’s operating under an enhanced sense of comfort. The focus, second to health, is being the staff ace -- weird Spring Training results aside.

“My Spring Training ERA has to be over 10,” laughed Means, whose career Grapefruit League ERA is actually 6.46 across 16 outings (11 starts). “It's never gone well, so it's just par for the course. But like I said, I'm working on some stuff. Maybe I would have approached it a little bit different if it was a real start, but I felt good body-wise. That's all that matters.”

Although Means left the mound desiring a bit more from his first outing of 2022 -- a delayed debut as the O’s gave him proper time on the back fields to ease into action in a shortened Spring Training, with pitcher health at a premium -- he knows more will be at stake when the season opens on April 8 against Tampa Bay in St. Petersburg.

Only Means and Jordan Lyles are assured spots in the rotation, two of only three pitchers at camp with at least 100 innings in a Major League season. So Means will trade a wonky day on the mound for what he hopes is a step toward his ultimate goal: a full, healthy season as he enters his first year of arbitration eligibility.

“I felt pretty good. I felt strong the whole time,” he said. “Just trying to work out some things.”

Beyond the box score, Means’ focus was on game-testing his changeup. He went fastball-heavy, especially early in the outing, but worked in 12 changeups to induce eight swings and four whiffs. As he settled in, Means turned to his slider and his curve; he threw four sliders -- all in the final at-bat to Yoshi Tsutsugo, who hit an RBI single just through the left side of the infield.

And despite the score, the first two innings had plenty to be positive about; Means required just 24 pitches to face one batter over the minimum, recording his lone strikeout with that changeup to get Michael Chavis swinging and find some success with one of his offseason priorities.

Bird seed

• Manager Brandon Hyde starting Kelvin Gutierrez at first base, something he’s rarely done in his career, on Tuesday was more for Tyler Nevin, the club’s No. 29 prospect. Nevin took Gutierrez’s traditional spot at third as the team tries to increase his positional flexibility. Nevin will also see some time in left field, Hyde said, as he did at the end of 2021.

Nevin responded with a two-run single on Tuesday and four infield assists.

“I think that Tyler’s got a chance to hit,” Hyde said prior to the game, “and just to move around a little bit on the field. … We’re going to move him around a little bit, see if he can play different places.”

• Infielder Rylan Bannon, sharp with his glove, has struggled to find results with the bat since landing in Baltimore in 2018 as part of the Manny Machado trade. But he found some success on Tuesday, lacing a solo homer in the seventh and what would be the game-winning hit in the top of the ninth.

It’s been a positive about-face for Bannon, as well as Yusniel Diaz and Dean Kremer, the last pieces of the Machado trade still in the organization. Kremer impressed with an inning of relief on Tuesday as he competes for a rotation spot, and Diaz went 1-for-2 with a walk. All told, Diaz has gotten on base in half of his 12 plate appearances this spring, including a homer and double.