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Means puts pin in impressive rookie campaign

Lefty goes 12-11 with 3.60 ERA over 155 innings in breakout season
@JoeTrezz
September 28, 2019

BOSTON -- Exactly a year ago Thursday, John Means was summoned from his suburban Kansas City couch to the Fenway Park mound. A 25-year-old non-prospect at the time, Means had assumed his 2018 season was over. But a late-September pitching crisis had come upon the Orioles, so they rushed Means

BOSTON -- Exactly a year ago Thursday, John Means was summoned from his suburban Kansas City couch to the Fenway Park mound. A 25-year-old non-prospect at the time, Means had assumed his 2018 season was over. But a late-September pitching crisis had come upon the Orioles, so they rushed Means to the 40-man roster and hurried him onto a plane.

Soon, Means found himself jogging in from the right-field bullpen and into a disaster of a Major League debut. The Orioles lost by 16 to the eventual 2018 World Series champions that day. Five runs came against Means, who returned to the Midwest and began to ponder life after baseball.

Box score: Orioles 9, Red Sox 4

Means knew turnover was coming to the Orioles. He knew he lived tenuously on the fringes of the roster. He created a LinkedIn page, and he began cross-state commuting to a cutting-edge performance clinic in St. Louis with something resembling last-ditch intent.

For Means, it was the make-or-break point of his big league dreams.

Flash forward to the present day, and that background is necessary to appreciate how far Means has come. Back at Fenway Park, Means spent Saturday afternoon’s 9-4 win over the Red Sox putting the finishing touches on what was an emergent, breakout, out-of-nowhere rookie season, grinding through five innings to earn his 12th victory of 2019 and finish with an above-.500 record.

“It is kind of a finish-where-I-started thing,” Means said. “I was trying to get a winning record. That’s something I want to pride myself in, winning ballgames for this team. That’s what I’m happy with today.”

By his own admission, Means was a long shot to make the Orioles when he arrived in Sarasota, Fla., this spring. He finished the year an All-Star, going 12-11 with a 3.60 ERA in 31 games (27 starts) and as a legitimate American League Rookie of the Year Award candidate. Though Houston’s Yordan Alvarez is the overwhelming favorite to win the honor, Means should finish high if MLB.com’s recent polling holds, and that alone speaks to the impact he’s had on a league that largely had no idea he was coming.

“He has been outstanding and our best starter all season long. He’s been a rock for us,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “He’s a young player that came out of nowhere that we feel has a bright future and is going to be with us when we start becoming a competitive club. I think we’ve had a bunch of good stories, but John is just the story on the pitching side.”

Elsewhere in Saturday’s action, DJ Stewart, Richie Martin, Renato Núñez and Trey Mancini went deep, Jonathan Villar became the first Oriole since Brian Roberts in 2008 to eclipse the 40-stolen-base plateau, and the O’s piled on four crucial sixth-inning runs against old friend Andrew Cashner.

Villar, who also has 24 homers, became the first player to reach both numbers since Carlos Gomez did so for the Brewers in ‘13. Mancini’s big day gives him 35 homers to go along with his .291 average and .901 OPS. He is the first Oriole since Albert Belle in 1999 to hit all those marks, and one of five AL players to do so this season. The others are Mike Trout, Alex Bregman, Nelson Cruz and J.D. Martinez.

“I think the whole club, we’re playing hard in Game 161, 50 games out or whatever we are,” Hyde said. “Continuing to compete. I thought we played with a ton of energy today, played to win.”

The Orioles turned to five relievers to hold the line for Means, who spent the summer carving his way into the club’s record books amid some trying personal circumstances. On the field, Means fell seven innings short of qualifying for the ERA title, throwing 155; if he had, his ERA would rank seventh among AL starters. His WHIP would sit sixth.

Since the franchise moved to Baltimore in 1954, the Orioles have had 18 pitchers throw at least 150 innings in their rookie years. Among them, Means’ 2019 season ranks first in walk rate (2.21), fourth in strikeout rate (7.03), third in ERA+ entering Saturday (133), tied for seventh in opponent batting average (.234) and eighth in ERA (3.60). The O's went 12-15 (.444 winning percentage) in his starts and just 42-92 (.313) in everyone else’s.

“Obviously, I see some [numbers], but I try to go out there and pitch,” Means said. “My goal at the beginning was just to stay here the whole year.”

Joe Trezza covers the Orioles for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeTrezz.