A fan interference call in the first inning tonight denied Orioles second baseman Jonathan Villar a leadoff double. He stood at second base, waited through a crew chief challenge and jogged back to the dugout.
The solution in his next at-bat, of course, was to hit the ball where a paying customer couldn’t influence the outcome. Where he’d be able to circle the bases.
Aim for the center field seats. Do it with the bases loaded. Be the one to dictate the outcome.
Villar’s second career grand slam staked the Orioles to a four-run lead and John Means worked a career-high seven innings in a 4-1 victory over the Red Sox before an announced crowd of 11,042 at Camden Yards.
The Orioles have won back-to-back games sandwiched around yesterday’s postponement and are 13-22 overall and 5-11 at home. Four of those wins in Baltimore have come in their last five tries.
Means finally broke through the fifth inning wall, which stopped him in three previous starts. He held the Red Sox to one run and three hits through the seventh and retired the last nine batters.
A 90-93 mph fastball didn’t sit on the heart of the plate. The changeup kept getting him outs. He used two breaking balls. It was quite the pitching clinic against the defending World Series champions and it lowered his ERA to 2.48 in 32 2/3 innings.
The bullpen talk has been silenced. Means is staying in the rotation.
No walks tonight and no doubt that he’s viewed as a starter.
Villar’s home run in the second came after Rio Ruiz singled, Stevie Wilkerson laid down a bunt single and Chris Davis walked to load the bases with no outs. Josh Smith struck out Pedro Severino and Richie Martin to nearly escape the jam, but Villar jumpd on the first pitch, a curveball, and carried it an estimated 407 feet per Statcast.
The other bases-loaded home run for Villar came on Sept. 4, 2016 in Pittsburgh while playing for the Brewers. The Orioles didn’t have a slam this season until tonight.
Tonight’s shot was sweet justice for Villar after a male fan wearing an Orioles polo reached over the left field fence and deflected his fly ball as J.D. Martinez gave chase. The initial ruling of a double was overturned upon review.
Another fan sitting in the first row next to the batter’s eye caught the home run ball in legal fashion. He didn’t have to lean forward - which would have required a rubber torso to interfere given the space between his seat and the fence. He just had to make sure that his friend didn’t beat him to it.
The Orioles had a chance to build on their lead in the fourth when Wilkerson and Davis singled with no outs - the former raising his average to .316 with the hit. Severino lined to center, Heath Hembree replaced Smith and the next two batters were retired.
Steve Pearce made a nice over-the-shoulder catch of Martin’s pop up down the right field line and Villar flied to deep right-center field.
Wikerson shattered his bat on a ground ball to Pearce in the eighth, the throw home nabbing Renato Núñez after the Orioles put runners on the corners with one out. Ryan Weber hit Davis to load the bases, but Severino popped up.
The Red Sox ended any notions of a shutout in the fifth on Christian Vázquez’s leadoff double, Pearce’s deep fly ball and Eduardo Núñez’s sacrifice fly. But Means had thrown only 64 pitches and he retired the side in order in the sixth - making Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Martinez a combined 0-for-9.
Three of the saves have covered more than one inning.
Orioles starters worked at least six innings in back-to-back games for only the second time this season after Dylan Bundy logged 7 1/3 Saturday night against the Rays.
Means set a career high in innings by retiring Betts on a fly ball to begin the sixth. He finished at 96 pitches, four more than his previous high.
The Orioles have allowed only one run in their last two games. And no home runs.
Manager Brandon Hyde on Means: “That was an impressive performance. I love the way John Means competes, I love the way he moves his fastball around, throws in off the plate, spots up, up in the zone, above the zone. I thought tonight was the best ... You know, he’s got two breaking balls and he utilized them more. The more he’s out there and able to give the hitter something else to think about the better he’s going to be. That was a really good performance tonight.”
Hyde on Means better now than in minors: “I never saw him so it’s hard for me to answer that. But what I’m seeing is a guy that’s aggressive in and out of the strike zone, great tempo, holds runners. Got a plus-changeup and is starting to really develop two breaking balls. You’re seeing a four-pitch pitcher right now, a guy that you can’t sell out on on one pitch. The changeup’s really good and that’s something that’s in the back of their head all the time. And his fastball’s good enough to play by guys, which you saw especially early in the game.”
Hyde on Means’ efficiency: “That was fantastic, to go seven innings against a really good ballclub with a really good lineup that’s playing well and really swinging the bat. A young guy in really his first year, that was awesome.
Hyde on first time Means opened his eyes in spring training: “It was that Yankee game. I liked his changeup and I liked the way the four-seam played up in the zone, but I don’t think he had a great spring training. I don’t think there was this moment when he was really dominating in spring training. He’s pitched better in the regular season than he has in spring training and he’s still developing, which is cool and impressive.
“What we’re looking for from our younger players is to not only have results, but to improve over the course of the year. Those two breaking balls are just getting better and better and he’s getting some confidence with it.”
Hyde on Villar: “Jonny Villar is some kind of strong. For a middle infielder, a switch hitter, to be able to take a breaking ball down below the zone and to hit it out to center field, a high lofting home run to center field, it just shows you the strength that he has. Jonny, too, like a lot of our guys, I think they’re on the upswing of their career and still scratching the surface, still finding things on how to be a better player.
“Jon has got so many tools that you see certain things. How he goes opposite field, possible homer or whatever it was, then he goes dead center off a breaking ball below the zone left-hander. He’s playing really good baseball.”
Hyde on Wilkerson: “I just like the fact that Stevie’s bringing us a ton of energy, no doubt, and he’s bringing some life at the plate. He’s really an aggressive swinger. He gives us a huge lift and the energy he plays with and how athletic he is, strong kid that can run, switch-hits. He’s swinging the bat and it’s fantastic. His competiveness at the plate, he can go deep on you, also. So he’s been a really nice addition.”
Hyde on difference in Villar when on a roll: “I think it’s the game of baseball, right? We’ve had a lot of conversations with Jonny and we’re talking to Jon a lot because we see the ability and we see the upside and we see what kind of player that he can be. Especially me and Flo (José Flores), we’re talking to him all the time about focusing pitch to pitch, catching the ball on defense, routine play, smart on the bases. All the just baseball plays. And Jon’s bought it. We have great conversations and I just love the way he’s playing the game.”
Hyde on positioning of defense: “Arnie (Beyeler) does a great job and Flo does a great job with the infielders. Tonight we were in really good spots all night. There were some hard-hit balls that we got to because we positioned ourselves well. So both of those guys take a lot of pride and I love the fact that our players have bought into the system that we’re using defensively. We’re making it important. But they’re taking it into the game and it matters to them.
“We still have a ways to go defensively for me in a lot of areas, but I think we’re developing and we’re doing a great job of focusing pitch to pitch and at-bat to at-bat. Not taking plays off defensively. And we’ve done it for the majority of the year.”
Means on outing: “Honestly, I was just happy to get past five innings. That had been my cap it feels like over my last few starts and to get past five innings, get to seven, I felt like a starter again.”
Means on whether he checked pitch count after fifth: “I actually didn’t look at it. I didn’t want to look at it. I just came in the dugout, stayed locked in and then after I was done I asked (David) Hess what my pitch count was. I thought I had hit 100, but it was only 96 or something.”
Means on why better in majors than minors: “I don’t know. I just feel comfortable up here. I feel like these games really matter. I was never a prospect, so I feel like my back’s against the wall every time I go out there and I feel like I pitch better that way.”
Means on mixing in breaking balls: “And I’m going to need that as I go forward. The first month the changeup kind of surprised everybody and as I move forward as I establish myself I’m going to need the breaker and the slider more.”
Villar on slam: “Very happy because that’s my second grand slam in the major leagues. Not only for me, but for the team. The team is winning like that. It’s unbelievable.”
Villar on Means’ changeup: “That’s unbelievable, that guy. That’s unbelievable. It’s not the first time he throws the changeup. I see the guy when he’s coming up. He doesn’t throw it in the same location, his fastball is good, and that changeup is unbelievable. That’s his best pitch. I don’t see it.”
Villar on fan interference: “I didn’t pay any attention because the umpires see the ball and they told me he couldn’t catch the ball right there. Ninety percent (of the time) they can’t catch that ball. Starting the season, it’s the first month, we take it.”