John Means' September return was a 2023 highlight for the Orioles

When lefty John Means pitched on the night of April 13, 2022, against Milwaukee, we headed into that game assuming it was just another night watching a pitcher emerging as one of the league’s best take the mound for the Orioles.

No one could have known then he would not take the mound in another major league game until Sept. 12, 2023 – that was 517 days later.

Means had one long road back.

He underwent Tommy John surgery in April of 2022 and the hope was he could be back by midseason in 2023. But last May he had a setback – a strained muscle in his upper back and it would be longer before he made it back.

But Means finally returned to pitch in a rehab game for Double-A Bowie on Aug. 10. He would throw in six rehab games between Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk, going 1-1 with a 3.74 ERA in 21 2/3 innings. That led to Means' Sept. 12 return to the Orioles, and he made four starts down the stretch.

But after he had thrown a two-inning sim game while the Orioles were waiting for the start of the American League Division Series, Means felt some soreness in his elbow. He was left off the ALDS roster, but the O’s said it was minor and he could pitch should they advance to the AL Championship Series. They did not but the O’s insisted at the season-ending press conferences that Means was fine and would have been able to pitch in the ALCS.

That was good news. So was Means’ return in September. So is the fact Means should be a member of the season-opening rotation in 2024.

Means threw well in his four games in September. In his return game he gave up three runs in five innings versus St. Louis. In the other three games he allowed only four runs and eight hits over 18 2/3 innings, allowing a .127 batting average and .477 OPS. He looked quite good and like his old self.

On Sept. 23, the O’s played at Cleveland. They had lost the first two games of that four-game series and Tampa Bay already had a win that afternoon. The O’s carried a three-game losing streak into that game and had they lost it, their AL East lead would have been down to ½-game over the Rays.

It was a night they scored just two runs. But Means would not let them lose, allowing one run and one hit over 7 1/3 innings. He had a no-hitter after 6 2/3 innings and 20 outs before allowing a solo homer. He became the first O’s pitcher with 6 2/3 no-hit innings since his own no-hitter at Seattle on May 5, 2021. He was the first Oriole to take a no-hitter into the seventh inning since Keegan Akin on Sept. 11, 2021, in a doubleheader versus Toronto.

Means didn’t pitch much for the Orioles in 2023, but there he was on the mound in Cleveland in what might have been one of the biggest games of the year. And then he delivered one of the biggest pitching performances.

In his season-ending press conference after the Orioles lost to Texas in the ALDS, Mike Elias said Means would be fine for next season and praised his big outing in Cleveland. The O’s missed him in that playoff series with the Rangers.

“His elbow just kind of barked at an unfortunate time for him, but we’ve gotten it looked at and he’s going to be fine,” Elias said then. “He’ll be a full-go in spring training, nothing needed for treatment with him other than just kind of time and rest.”

Elias conceded that the Orioles missed Means, who could have started against the Rangers or aided a bullpen that was stretched to cover two games where the starter left early. 

“I think there’s a good chance, whether he started one of those games in Texas or didn’t, that he was going to pitch a lot and pitch importantly. Obviously, that has some trickle-down effect on decisions on the rest of the staff.

“We missed him. He’s one of our best pitchers, but the guy came out of nowhere and saved our division title in Cleveland, and I’ll never forget that.”

A question that we don’t yet know the answer to is just how many innings the O’s can expect from Means in the 2024 season. A workhorse year of 190-200 innings seems unlikely but Means has thrown 155 innings in both the full seasons of 2019 and 2021 and threw 44 in the shortened 2020 season. He was at 45 1/3 innings last season counting his rehab games and his O’s outings.

It is not an apples-to-apples comparison here, but Grayson Rodriguez pitched 75 2/3 innings during his 2022 year, shortened by an injury. He pitched 163 1/3 last season between the majors and minors.

Could Means get that many innings next year? I think he can approach that since he has thrown nearly that many twice before. But for now, it’s an open-ended question.

In the big picture however, the Orioles have to just be delighted he is finally back and looked like his old self late in the 2023 season.

O's new pitching coach: As first reported last night, Drew French will be hired as the Orioles new pitching coach. He will take over for Chris Holt, who remains with the club as director of pitching. French worked on the same staff with Mike Elias in Houston from 2016-2020 when he was a minor league pitching coach for the Astros. Since 2021 he has been Atlanta Braves bullpen coach.

Bautista honored: O's reliever Félix Bautista last night was named the American League's best reliever, winning the Mariano Rivera Award. He went 8-2 with a 1.48 ERA and 33 saves. He was the unanimous choice by a voting panel consisting of six all-time great relievers. 

More questions and curiosities about the 2024 Orio...
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