CLEVELAND – The five-pitch first inning dared manager Brandon Hyde to imagine the possibilities. The hitless innings did more poking. John Means was dealing with efficiency. Almost too good to be true for a team with a gassed bullpen.
The Orioles kept stranding runners, 11 of them through the sixth, but Means was practically untouchable. The starter who went 17 months between major league games and was appearing in only his third since reconstructive elbow surgery would be the stopper and rescuer.
He would satisfy the team’s craving for length out of its rotation. Perhaps the least likely candidate due to the circumstances.
Means didn’t allow a hit until Andrés Giménez’s two-out solo home run in the seventh inning on the 89th pitch. The next batter fouled out on the 90th.
Hyde had Yennier Cano warming but let the lefty return for the eighth to face José Tena, who grounded out. Means was at 96 pitches, and he walked to the dugout with his usual stride, his glove held in his right hand. Teammates stood at the railing and applauded him.
Anthony Santander drove in two more runs to give him five in the past two nights, Cionel Pérez handled the ninth flawlessly, and the Orioles shaved a little more off their magic number with a 2-1 victory over the Guardians before an announced crowd of 28,271 at Progressive Field.
"John was exactly what we needed tonight," said catcher James McCann. "Our bullpen has been stepping up huge for us all season long and the needed a break, and that's exactly what John did."
The Orioles are 96-59 after ending their three-game skid and have gone 89 series in a row without being swept. The Rays rallied for a walk-off win against the Blue Jays, leaving the magic number at five to clinch the American League East.
Cano retired both batters he faced in the eighth, striking out pinch-hitter Kole Calhaun and breaking out the straddle and stare. He hasn’t done it much lately with only his third strikeout among 37 batters.
Pérez recorded his third save, and the fourth of his career. Only two relievers used after 32 in the previous six games.
Means flirted with his second career no-hitter after making history in Seattle on May 5, 2021. He retired the first seven batters before walking Myles Straw. He retired the next seven before hitting Gabriel Arías, who left with a bruised wrist.
The fly ball to end the sixth left him at 82 pitches. He threw 75 and 86 in his first two starts. Hyde nudged him further.
"The one thing that Means does is that, I'm not going to say is different from other pitchers, especially with the clock now, but that guy gets on the mound, he goes, and the defense loves it," McCann said. "Defense is ready. He forces guys to put the ball in play, and his tempo is just phenomenal."
Means completed seven innings for the first time since Sept. 9, 2021 against the Royals, and 7 1/3 for the first time since the no-hitter. He won for the first time since Sept. 20, 2021 in Philadelphia.
"For me that was about as far as I could definitely take him, whether he had given up a hit or not," Hyde said. "Obviously, his third start coming off Tommy John and he's only been built up to five innings in the minor leagues and with us. So, going 7 1/3 is absolutely unbelievable. The way he kept them off-balance. Fastball command, changeup command was really good, got a lot of early contact. They fouled off so many pitches, still. But that was an incredible start for us."
Means didn't know whether he'd come back out for the eighth and he didn't ask or give anyone time to reconsider it.
"I thought I'm going until he tells me 'no,'" Means said, "so I was ready to go the whole time."
The Orioles have six no-hitters since the franchise moved to Baltimore, including Hoyt Wilhelm in 1958, Steve Barber and Stu Miller in 1967, Tom Phoebus in 1968, Jim Palmer in 1969, and the combined efforts of Bob Milacki, Gregg Olson, Mark Williamson and Mike Flanagan in 1991.
"I felt in control and I felt like I was locating just as well (as in Seattle)," Means said.
"I knew it was a possibility but I was just trying to get outs and trying to get deep in the game, to be honest. I felt really good, I felt normal. I felt the same as I did the beginning of the game."
Hyde didn't have time to think back to Seattle. He was busy trying to navigate his club through another close game.
"I was hoping we would get some runs," Hyde said, after the Orioles stranded 12. "A 2-0 game there, it's not real comfortable. Obviously, I'm aware of what's happening with him and love how he's throwing the ball, but a few more runs would have been nice.
"I've seen a lot of these, and I've seen a lot of them get (ended) with hits late, too. Honestly, I was just trying to win the game. That would have been fantastic if something like that happened, but a close game like that and a game we needed to win, I was trying to figure out a way to win the game."
McCann caught Lucas Giolito's no-hitter with the White Sox in 2020 and the combined no-hitter with the Mets in April 2022, and he was behind the plate tonight for Means. He singled twice as a supporting player in Means’ story.
"He commanded extremely well," McCann said. "He followed the game plan extremely well. He was in control from pitch one.
"He stuck to the game plan we talked about and executed it, and it worked. He commanded down and away to righties, went up and in when he needed to and kept guys off-balance all night. They weren't able to sit soft, they weren't able to look hard. They were kind of stuck in between all night, and that's what led to such soft contact throughout the evening."
The idea of catching another no-hitter crossed McCann's mind a batter or two before the home run, which came on a changeup that hung over the plate.
"There hadn't been a lot of hard-hit balls, we had gotten into the seventh or whatever inning it was," McCann said. "The way he was commanding the baseball, the way he's attacking, getting ahead of hitters. They ended up getting only that one hit, so we were close."
Asked what he thought as the ball was clearing the fence, McCann said, "Oh no."
"It's deflating for a second, obviously, just because of the fact that something special was potentially going to happen, but at the same time, you have a short memory because we're now in a one-run game, we've got to get right back after this next hitter."
Means thought, "Of course it was a homer."
"Close game. Obviously if you give up the first hit you hope it's a single or something, not a homer," he said.
The first rule of no-hitters is you don't talk about them in the dugout while they're alive. Means and McCann shared a moment in the eighth.
"After he got pulled and I came back in the dugout, we both kind of smiled," McCann said. "He's had one and I've had a couple, and I think we both knew that we had a shot at another one. Hats off to Giménez, he put a really good swing on a 2-1 changeup, left on left."
Santander raced in to make a nice catch on José Ramírez’s liner in the fourth. The next batter, Josh Naylor, flied to the right field warning track. The only threats to Means until the homer.
"For me, tonight was not only results wise, but he had the best tempo of the first three starts," Hyde said. "He had great tempo, he was on the attack."
The Orioles worked Guardians starter Cal Quantrill for 26 pitches in the first inning and led 1-0 before their first out. But that was it.
Gunnar Henderson drew an eight-pitch walk, hustled to third base on Adley Rutschman’s single into left field and scored on Santander’s 41st double and 90th RBI. But Rutschman broke for home on Ryan O’Hearn’s grounder to second baseman Andrés Giménez and was thrown out, Cedric Mullins struck out and Aaron Hicks flied out.
So much for a quick outburst and some breathing room for the pitching staff.
The Orioles loaded the bases in the third on Santander’s single and two-out walks to Mullins and Hicks, but Ramón Urías grounded into a force. The Orioles were 1-for-5 with runners in scoring position and stranded six before the game moved into the fourth.
Henderson singled with two outs in the fourth and stole second base. He became the first Orioles rookie with 20-plus doubles, five-plus triples, 20-plus home runs and 10-plus steals.
Rutschman walked, but Santander struck out. Cal Quantrill threw 93 pitches in four innings.
McCann, Rutschman and Santander singled off Xzavion Curry in the sixth to give the Orioles a 2-0 lead.
Means provided them with a boost tonight and could do the same in the playoffs.
"Him joining us, it would have been nice to have him earlier," McCann said. "What he's been able to do coming back has been huge for us."
"I feel like I'm feeling right where I want to be," Means said. "It's fun, can't beat it. You can't get this feeling anywhere else. To be back with this team and after a win like that, it's big-time."
"The experience, he's probably our freshest of pitchers we have," Hyde said. "A lot of guys didn't get up, a lot of guys from a bullpen standpoint got the night off. And definitely needed it."
* Jackson Holliday hit his second home run with Triple-A Norfolk, Kyle Stowers hit his 16th and 17th, and Coby Mayo hit his 12th. Holliday also had an RBI single and two-run double. Mayo added an RBI single and two-run double. Colton Cowser had a two-run double in the ninth.
Connor Norby collected his 40th double.
Cade Povich allowed four runs and four hits with three walks and six strikeouts in five innings. TJ McFarland tossed a scoreless inning, but Bryan Baker allowed three runs and three hits in the seventh. Baker was credited with the win after the Tides rallied for five runs in the eighth and scored four in the ninth.
Norfolk clinched the best record in the International League.