Very little about the 2020 baseball season is going to approach normal, let alone fit the description like an oiled glove.
The strict pitch count and expectations that he’d work three or four innings lent an unusual twist to the story, but the staff ace was back on the mound. Order restored to the rotation in the most literal sense.
And then the Yankees did their usual ambushing while eyeing their 18th consecutive win over the Orioles.
A little too much normal.
Luke Voit hit his first career grand slam in the top of the first inning, also the first surrendered by Means, and the Yankees used that 37-pitch, 18-minute stay in the box to build a lead they held as umpires halted play due to rain prior to the bottom of the sixth.
The Orioles trailed 5-4 as they prepared to bat. The first weather-related delay of 2020.
Hanser Alberto hit a two-run shot off J.A. Happ in the bottom of the first and Rio Ruiz did the same in the second, but the Orioles were in danger of setting a club record for most consecutive losses against an opponent.
Manager Brandon Hyde removed Means after 2 1/3 innings and 51 pitches. The left-hander allowed five runs and two hits with one walk and two strikeouts.
Tonight marked his shortest career start, with the restrictions in place creating a quicker exit.
Means had his fastball in rare form, sitting in the mid-90s in the first inning. But he hit Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres back-to-back at 95 and 94.5 mph and Giancarlo Stanton grounded a changeup into left field for a 1-0 lead.
Aaron Hicks worked an eight-pitch walk to load the bases and raise Means’ total to 24, and Voit followed with his first career grand slam on a 1-2 changeup, the ball landing in the Orioles bullpen and bringing cheers from the Yankees dugout in an otherwise quiet ballpark.
Travis Lakins Sr. began to warm as Means tried to record the final out. Gio Urshela struck out on a 96 mph heater.
Means retired the side in order in the second on only 10 pitches and struck out Judge to end the inning. Gleyber Torres grounded out to lead off the third and Lakins was summoned.
How much giddy-up did Means have on his fastball? It averaged 95.2 mph per Statcast, compared to 91.7 last year.
Alberto maintained his assault of left-handers with a home run after Austin Hays’ leadoff single. Alberto was 6-for-13 against Happ before tonight.
Ruiz hit his third home run, a total he didn’t reach last season until his 34th game, and the Yankees’ lead was down to 5-4. Ruiz was 3-for-13 with three home runs as his ball landed in the empty right field seats.
According to STATS, Ruiz is the fourth Oriole whose first three-plus hits of a season were home runs. He joins the following list of players, which is led by a pitcher:
1962: Milt Pappas (four)
1963 Boog Powell (three)
1994 Mike Devereaux (three)
Ruiz lined a single up the middle in the fourth. Pappas’ record is safe.
Lakins tied his career high of 2 2/3 innings set in 2019 in his major league debut with the Red Sox. He held the Yankees scoreless, didn’t issue a walk and struck out three.
Cedric Mullins made an outstanding diving catch in right field to rob Tyler Wade, who replaced Torres in the bottom of the fourth. Torres was 0-for-5 in the series and keeping him in the yard felt like a win for the Orioles.
The Orioles are shaving the fifth game off their schedule, with a big divot to start the week. Win or lose, they can feel good about being able to play while other teams are forced into shutdown mode.
The weekend series between the Phillies and Blue Jays at Citizens Bank Park has been postponed “out of an abundance of caution,” according to the Major League Baseball press release.
The Marlins keep losing players because of positive tests for COVID-19, with the latest tally at 17. They’d like to get back to their season next week.
Chris Davis is away from the Orioles and likely under COVID-19 protocol, which isn’t the same as a confirmed positive test. He could be experiencing some symptoms. The team isn’t at liberty to discuss it.
Hyde is trying to perform the usual duties as a manager and also guide the club through situations and dangers that are new to everyone.
Keeping the dialogue flowing in the clubhouse has been an important part of the process.
“It’s definitely an unusual year in every way and I think that we’re very aware of what’s going on, not only in our sport but everywhere else, also, and it’s a main topic,” Hyde said earlier today in his Zoom call. “We do talk about a lot of things. Players come in my office and we talk about things. I know that guys are talking in the clubhouse about what’s going on around the league.
“We’re being overly flexible on what our day-to-day is like right now and just making adjustments every single day. But there’s a lot of things that are really important outside of baseball right now that we’re very aware of. We’re happy to be playing, but we do know what’s going on outside of our bubble and those discussions do happen.”
Maybe someone can suggest a way to beat the Yankees.
Update: Judge hit a three-run homer off Cole Sulser in the ninth inning and the Orioles ran their streak of defeats against an opponent to a club-record 18 in a row with an 8-6 loss.
Pedro Severino hit a two-run homer off Jonathan Loaisiga in the bottom of the eighth inning and the Orioles appeared ready to end the dry spell. But Sulser, going for his second career save, walked Urshela and gave up a one-out single to LeMahieu. Judge followed with a drive to deep left field, a no-doubter off the bat.
The ball traveled 413 feet with an exit velo of 107.3 mph per Statcast.
Former Orioles closer Zack Britton notched the save.
The rain delay lasted 1 hour, 34 minutes and no one scored when play resumed until Anthony Santander was hit by a pitch with one out and Severino reached the left field seats.
Sánchez is 0-for-15 with 10 strikeouts.
The Orioles haven’t defeated the Yankees in Baltimore since July 10, 2018.
Update II: Hyde on Means and the increase in velocity: “He felt great. He probably felt a little bit too good.”
Hyde on Sulser: “He threw the ball great in Boston, threw two great innings in Boston. ... I really like his stuff. Leadoff walk hurt him, he got squeezed on a call against Judge that changed the at-bat and really hurt him.”
Hyde on Ruiz: “He’s swinging the bat great. It’s not a real easy left-hander to go deep on and then a line drive single. He took really good swings tonight.”
Means on how he felt: “Physically, I felt great. I thought my stuff was better than it ever has been. ... Physically and stuff-wise, feeling really good.”
Means on increase in velocity: “It probably was a little bit of a tick up today, but honestly that’s where my pitches have been. Even at Bowie the other day, I was 92-96 (mph). It’s just a little adjustment I made that I like a lot and hopefully next time we get some results with it.”
Means on adjustment: “Just riding the slope a little bit better. ... I got in trouble last year kind of falling and pulling myself out of my body a little bit. Staying closed a little longer.”