Teammates reflect on Means' injury and having him back on the mound

The morning of April 13, 2022, began in normal fashion, with a phone call to wish my mother a Happy Birthday and probably a few complaints about anything to anyone within earshot. Staying on brand. The Orioles were hosting the Brewers after losing four of their first five games. The announced crowd was 12,704.

John Means was making his second start, with none of us knowing it would be his last until Sept. 12, 2023 – when I turned 60 years old.

What is it about birthdays in my family?

Anthony Bemboom caught Means, with starter Robinson Chirinos entering late after Ryan McKenna pinch-ran. Adley Rutschman wouldn’t arrive for a month.

Rougned Odor played second base and Kelvin Gutiérrez pinch-hit for him. Gunnar Henderson wouldn’t debut until Aug. 31. Jordan Westburg didn’t play his first major league game until June 26, 2023.

Trey Mancini was the cleanup hitter before the Orioles traded him at the deadline. Dillon Tate and Paul Fry pitched. Félix Bautista was used in the eighth inning. Jorge López surrendered two runs in the ninth and took the loss, and he also was dealt at the deadline.

Means lasted only four innings, allowing two runs, and made a mysterious exit. We’d find out later about the left forearm tightness and how he also felt it in his first start. How he didn’t seem concerned – until he tweeted about his pending Tommy John surgery.

“After multiple MRI’s it’s confirmed that I need Tommy John surgery,” Means wrote. “I’m obviously disappointed, but more motivated than ever. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to watching what this team can do this year.”

Joey Krehbiel replaced Means in the fifth inning. He was optioned yesterday to make room for Means. How can you not be romantic about baseball?

(That’s probably not the proper usage of the question.)

The Orioles were 91-52 before last night's loss, the best record in the American League, with their magic number at four to clinch a playoff berth. Means is stepping into a much better situation, though last year’s club finished with 83 wins.

“That was a team that had never won before and was still kind of finding our way with a lot of inexperienced bullpen guys, giving guys an opportunity,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “Two different catchers now. I think the defense we play is at an elite level.”

Stomachs dropped when Means left last year’s game. There was some confusion, with Krehbiel warming, and emotions ranged from mild concern to panic.

“I remember it just like being weird because I didn’t see anything from him hurting something,” said Ramón Urías, who started at third base and batted fifth. “I’m just really happy for him. It’s not an easy injury to come back from and happy to have him back.

“He can do a lot for this team. He’s a huge lift for us. If he can stay healthy and be at his best level, he’s going to mean a lot for us.”

McKenna can’t recall many details of that night other than wondering from the bench what led to Means’ removal.

“I figured it was just something they saw, maybe a pitch, sporadic, or just not himself,” McKenna said. “He probably expressed that there was some discomfort there. It was just typically how it goes when somebody has some sort of an arm issue, a pitcher has an arm issue. Information is kind of kept to who needs to know at the time. You obviously check with him and see how he’s doing, but until everything comes out, we kind of find out at the same time.

“I think he’s had a good journey so far coming back and we’re happy to have him back.”

Only three players in last night’s lineup were on the club. López was the only reliever on the roster with Means, and he replaced the lefty in the sixth.

Cedric Mullins was playing center field and batting leadoff in Means’ final start, his spot before Rutschman became the main occupant.

“I think the initial reaction was, losing our ace at the time was a big hit for a season where we felt like we were going to potentially do some great things, and we still did,” Mullins said. “I think he was that extra push. For him to be back and get his starting spot, I think it just takes us to the next level. I know he has higher expectations for himself than we could ever put on him, but the goal is for him to go out and just do what he’s been doing since the beginning.

“My emotions being in the outfield, it’s always confusing when you see something going on and you see people coming out. You’re hoping for the best. Maybe he just tripped, maybe kind of rolled his ankle or something along those lines. But worst-case scenario being that he ended up needing surgery. So, to experience that, but to also know that we’re going to have to continue to push as a team, even if we miss him for a while, I think we did a really good job of that.”

Anthony Santander started in right field and batted third, the same as last night.

“Always when a pitcher comes out of the game, we hope as a teammate that it’s nothing series,” he said. “I found out the news when I got to the trainers’ room after the game. At the time that was a really big hit. But now he’s back, we’re so happy to have him back. We know what he can do, and hopefully he can continue to be what he was doing in the past.”

Austin Hays was in left field. He hit seventh, one below last night’s spot.

“I was concerned,” Hays said. “I was hoping it wasn’t going to be anything serious, so that was tough to watch him walk off the mound and finding out the news that he was going to have to have surgery. It was tough, because we played together in the minor leagues, came up together. That was a tough time.”

Last night was a triumph even in defeat. Means went five innings and allowed three runs. The fastball and changeup were good. He felt strong afterward.

Means doesn’t believe in moral victories, but downplaying the significance of his return is pointless. He’s too important, and he’s in uniform again, toeing the rubber and attacking hitters.

“It’s a good feeling, but at the same time I wanted to get my team a chance to win,” he said. “I felt like I made a few too many mistakes, left some balls over the plate. But other than that, it’s still good to feel healthy afterward.

“I’m just trying to plug myself in wherever they need me and hopefully to provide some help or whatever they need. But it is fun to play for a winning club and be in this clubhouse and be a part of this team.”

What would it mean to pitch in the playoffs?

“It would be unbelievable,” he said. “I just want to take it day-by-day at this point and not think too far ahead.”

Better than thinking back to April 13, 2022.


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