For all the fun the Orioles have provided in this unprecedented 2020 season, John Means hadn’t been a part of it.
The 2019 second-place finisher in AL Rookie of the Year voting began the abbreviated 60-game campaign with a sore left shoulder and made just two starts before losing his father to pancreatic cancer in early August. Though carrying a couple extra ticks on his fastball from 2019, Means had lost the feel for his changeup, the game-changing pitch that transformed him from being a fringe member of the Opening Day bullpen to the All-Star Game last season. Through six starts in 2020, the 27-year-old had pitched to an ugly 8.10 ERA and allowed eight home runs in 20 innings of work.
That changed Tuesday as Baltimore won its fourth straight to improve to 20-21 and tie the struggling New York Yankees in the loss column for the final wild-card spot in the AL’s expanded eight-team field. After a “tough talk” with manager Brandon Hyde last week, Means looked more like the 2019 version of himself in what was easily his best outing of the season in the 11-2 victory over the New York Mets.
“I was trying to force a lot of things, trying to get strikeouts, trying to blow it by everybody,” said Means after allowing one run and three hits over six innings to collect his first win of 2020. “That’s just not how I pitch. That’s not me. Hyde called me into the office and … told me this isn’t me. This isn’t how I pitch. This isn’t who I should be. I was getting frustrated; I was getting upset and angry with myself. To be able to relax out there and just be myself, it really helped me.”
By not trying to miss bats, Means struck out five and registered 15 swinging strikes, season highs in those departments. He effectively located his fastball that still carried extra giddy-up while better commanding the changeup over the course of the night, retiring 14 of the final 15 Mets hitters he faced to take full advantage of the run support from the Baltimore lineup.
Yes, it’s only one start, but a Means resurgence on the heels of rookies Keegan Akin and Dean Kremer shutting down the Yankees last weekend would give the Orioles the makings of their most interesting starting rotation in quite some time. Regardless of whether that helps propel them to an unlikely 2020 playoff berth, it’s the latest sign of the Orioles beginning to turn the corner in a rebuilding process that’s far from complete.
And it’s a lot of fun to watch.
Though the Orioles placing Chris Davis on the 10-day injured list to make room for Ryan Mountcastle felt poetic in some ways, assuming it was the end for the first baseman was premature.
Davis was activated on Tuesday, but Hyde made no firm commitment to play the 34-year-old first baseman, who had started just two of the club’s last eight games before being sent to the IL with “left knee patellar tendinitis” on Aug. 21.
“I’m going to find spots to possibly play him,” Hyde said. “I think that when I make the lineup out, I’m going to give our team the best chance to win. If [Davis] is part of the lineup that day, he is. And if not, he’s going to be ready to pinch hit or defend late.”
Batting .122 with a .357 on-base plus slugging percentage in 52 plate appearances this season — numbers in line with how major league pitchers batted in 2019 — Davis didn’t appear in Tuesday’s blowout win.
Paging the Angelos family.
Whether clubbing home runs, drawing more walks that expected, playing a respectable left field, or beating out routine grounders for infield hits, Mountcastle is rapidly emerging as one of the Orioles’ best players, especially helpful after the oblique injury to Anthony Santander.
In his first 63 plate major league plate appearances, the 23-year-old is batting .339 with a 1.004 OPS, four home runs, three doubles, 13 runs batted in, six walks, and 12 strikeouts. Despite a fraction of the playing time as most Baltimore regulars, Mountcastle currently ranks fourth on the club with 0.8 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference.
Perhaps Mountcastle should have been promoted sooner, but it’s sure fun watching him now.
Odds & ends
Cedric Mullins was just a homer shy of the cycle in Tuesday’s win to raise his season average to .293 with a rock-solid .780 OPS. After a nightmare 2019 that saw him demoted to Double-A Bowie, Mullins taking full advantage of the opportunity created by the Austin Hays rib injury has been one of the better stories of the season. … The Orioles were seemingly waving the white flag on 2020 by trading veteran bullpen arms Mychal Givens, Miguel Castro, and Richard Bleier, but a hard-throwing back end of Tanner Scott, Hunter Harvey, and Dillon Tate could be fun to watch for the rest of 2020 and beyond. … I’m not sure DJ Stewart’s current hot streak means he’ll stick in the majors for good this time, but his .185/.421/.630 slash line entering Wednesday is about as crazy as it gets in terms of weird baseball stats.