No chance to no-no: Means' unlikely journey

Orioles' ace proves 'anybody can do it,' K's 12 in masterful performance

May 6th, 2021

’ meteoric three-year rise -- from non-prospect to All-Star to the Orioles' ace -- reached new territory on Wednesday afternoon in Seattle, as he carved out a place in Major League history.

Nearly perfect against the Mariners at T-Mobile Park, the lefty threw the O’s first solo no-hitter since 1969 in a 6-0 win. The third no-hitter in MLB this season is also the 10th in franchise history, sixth since the Orioles moved to Baltimore in 1954, and first in MLB history in which the opposing team did not record a walk, a hit by pitch or an error, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Prior to Wednesday, Baltimore’s last no-hitter was a combined effort against the A's on July 13, 1991. Hall of Famer Jim Palmer had thrown the O's last solo no-hitter, also against the A's, on Aug. 13, 1969.

“I can't put it into words,” Means said. “I can't do it. It's such a crazy feeling. It's such a whirlwind of an experience, and I don't think I've been able to process it yet. But to be in the same breath as Palmer, I don't think that gets much better than that.”

While the Orioles do not have a perfect game in their storied history, Means came about as close as humanly possible. Striking out 12 without a walk, Means’ only baserunner came when Sam Haggerty reached on a dropped third strike in the third. Haggerty was immediately thrown out attempting to steal second; Means then retired the next 19 in order, facing the minimum. The result was arguably the greatest single-game pitching performance in franchise history.

“He was awesome today, there's no question about it,” said Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager. “This isn't a fluky thing. He was in control all day.”

Means completed the no-hitter by putting on a clinic of soft contact and working ahead in the count. Means fired first-pitch strikes to his first 17 batters, and 26 of 27 overall. He needed 113 pitches to breeze thrice through the Mariners’ lineup, which entered play ranked 29th in MLB in average (.207) and 28th in OPS (.656). Only one ball in play eclipsed Statcast’s 95 mph hard-hit threshold, and it was an outlier: Ty France’s easy popout to short in the fourth.

The Mariners’ best chance at a hit was thwarted when Cedric Mullins slid to catch J.P. Crawford’s soft liner to center to end the sixth. Kyle Lewis also flew out to the left-field warning track in the eighth.

“I thought that ball was way out,” Means said. “Thank God [Austin Hays] was there to catch it.”

“Besides that, I don't remember any balls hit hard,” said Orioles manager Brandon Hyde. “So that just shows you how dominant he was.”

That sentiment is becoming a refrain for Means, who transformed himself from a roster afterthought into an All-Star in 2019 and now, two years later, has been performing like one of the best pitchers in baseball for some time. Over his past 11 starts dating back to last season, Means is 6-1 with a 1.42 ERA and an 80/13 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His 1.37 ERA in 2021 is the lowest by an O's starter through his first seven starts of a season since Hoyt Wilhelm (1.05) in 1959. (However, Wilhelm also made two relief appearances in that span, which increased his overall ERA to 1.28.)

“We're in the third year of this [rebuilding cycle] and to have somebody that can go shut down an offense in the way he's been doing it … that’s the feeling you’re getting with John right now,” Hyde said. “You go to the ballpark [and] Means is on the mound, it’s going to be a fun night.”

Perhaps even more remarkable than Means’ newfound place in history is the path he took to get there. Undersized and overlooked coming out of the Kansas high-school scene, Means eventually walked on at West Virginia University and turned himself into an 11th-round Draft pick in 2014. By the end of 2018, then 25, he was so close to quitting he created a LinkedIn account in case baseball did not work out. He never needed it. Means added several miles per hour of velocity that winter, made the Orioles the next spring and was an All-Star by midsummer. Of his achievement Wednesday, Means said, “I never thought it would happen, never in a million years.”

“I always wrote 'MLB player' when I was a kid on the sheet when they asked you what you wanted to do when you're older, but I never thought it was a reality,” Means said. “I hope this let's every kid coming up know: anybody can do it. I was on my way out of the Minor Leagues and figured out a way to make a living out of this. Hopefully, the kids coming up, even the ones who are overlooked, know they have a chance.”

Throughout that journey, Means leaned on his father, Alan, whose death in 2020 from pancreatic cancer rocked the left-hander. He pitches every game with Alan’s initials “AM” inscribed on his glove. Standing at the edge of history on Wednesday, Means peered down before he jogged out to the mound for the ninth. Then he retired the side in order.

“I know he was back there telling me what pitch to throw,"” Means said. “I said to myself that, you know, he wouldn't care. He’d just be glad I’m having a good time. The accolades never mattered to him, but it was pretty special. And I know he'd be proud.”