John Means threw his last warm-up pitch this afternoon, waited for the ball to return to him and fired a 94 mph heater that missed his target.
Baseball was back in his life. The question was how long he’d stay in his first game since leaving the bereavement and injured lists.
On the mound for the first time in 12 days, Means issued an 11-pitch leadoff walk to Trea Turner and was victimized by three soft singles before retiring a batter. The first out came on his 29th pitch, a line drive to Dwight Smith Jr. in left field that scored Juan Soto, as Jorge López began to throw in the bullpen.
Means totaled 34 pitches, the last resulting in an RBI single by Victor Robles on one of the few balls hit with authority. Manager Brandon Hyde made the change and Means made the slow walk back to the dugout, unable to escape the inning or lengthen the distraction that the sport can provide.
A furious comeback against Max Scherzer provided a brief ray of sunshine on an overcast day at Camden Yards.
Anthony Santander sandwiched two home runs around Pedro Severino’s three-run shot, as the Orioles rallied to tie the game in the seventh, but the Nationals regained the lead in the eighth on Rio Ruiz’s throwing error and held on for a 6-5 victory.
The Orioles (12-9) failed in their attempt to win three series in a row after Soto drew a leadoff walk against Travis Lakins Sr., moved up on a ground ball and scored with two outs when Ruiz fielded Kurt Suzuki’s chopper and bounced his throw past Renato Núñez.
“That was an unfortunate play,” Hyde said. “Suzuki hit the ball, not a good runner, wasn’t running down the line very hard and Rio just, I felt like, kind of lost the intensity in his throw. I’m sure he recognized he had plenty of time and instead of doing his normal routine of catching the baseball, moving his feet and making a strong throw, I feel like he let up a little bit and kind of goosed it and his throw became a little short because of that. I think he’ll learn from that and be better off going forward.”
Ruiz pounded the infield dirt with his fist as the go-ahead run crossed the plate.
Scherzer was taking his own beating.
Santander destroyed a changeup with two outs in the seventh, causing the Orioles dugout to erupt. He produced his second career multi-homer game and Means was spared the loss.
Five of the seven batters reached against Means. Soto poked a single into left field against the shift, Turner scored on Asdrúbal Cabrera’s looping single to left, and Soto advanced on Suzuki’s shallow fly ball that eluded Núñez’s reach and came home on Carter Kieboom’s sacrifice liner.
The Nationals ran on Smith, unafraid to challenge him on Kieboom’s ball and Robles’ single.
“I thought physically he looked good,” Hyde said of Means. “I think that long layoff and the lack of work in between. He’s gone through a lot the last couple weeks and we weren’t expecting much, to be honest with you. I just need to build him back up and kind of had a rough first inning. But his velo was there. I thought he threw some good sliders, I thought he threw a couple good changeups. Encouraged by that. And we’ll just continue to build him as the main starter in our rotation.”
The plan called for Means to log only two innings today. “Obviously, I was hoping I could get at least through one, but I didn’t ” he said. He could be used again in a piggyback setup with López.
“I’d say physically I’m there,” Means said. “It’s just more of a feel thing. I think you give me another outing or two and I’ll be ready to go.
“I felt good. I got soft contact, just a bunch of soft singles. That’s baseball.”
López was claimed off waivers from the Royals and appeared in his first game since July 26 and only his second this season. He retired the first seven batters and was charged with two runs and three hits with no walks and five strikeouts in four innings.
The first run scored on Suzuki’s sacrifice fly in the fifth after two singles and a strikeout/wild pitch. Evan Phillips entered and Kieboom singled to plate Soto, who again beat the shift on a ball that otherwise could have resulted in a double play.
“(Means) is still building so this is kind of a spring training for him,” Hyde said. “Fortunately Jorge López coming behind him today, that was fantastic and that picked us up. Really impressed with his outing going those multiple innings and showing great life to his fastball, four-seam and two-seam, with a lot of 95 (mph) with sink and a nice curveball and changeups against a good lineup. So I think we’re going to continue to build both those guys and we’ll see.
“But John, this is going to take a little while and we’re going to do what’s best for him and the club. It’s not going to be from a lack of effort on his part. He had a setback earlier and he had this unfortunate circumstance like you said and it’s just going to take a little bit to get back to normal.”
Santander homered off Scherzer in the bottom of the first to extend his hitting streak to 11 games and begin a new RBI streak with a 396-foot shot down the right field line. Severino stood at home plate and admired his 410-footer to left in sixth, with a 109 mph exit velocity per Statcast, after Ruiz walked and Chance Sisco singled.
“I think it speaks very highly of all of us and the kind of work we’re putting in together every single day,” Santander said via translator Ramón Alarcón. “We come to ballpark ready to compete and trying to win every single night. I’m very proud of all my teammates and the amount of effort we’re putting in.”
Severino had three hits against Scherzer to make him 9-for-20 with two doubles, two home runs and eight RBIs against his former team.
Tanner Rainey struck out three batters looking in the eighth, including Severino, and stranded pinch-runner Andrew Velazquez at third base.
Plate umpire Will Little provided some entertainment by ejecting hitting coach Kevin Long from the visiting dugout and dismissing pitcher Aníbal Sánchez from the tent in the stands during the bottom of the second inning after loud disputes of his strike zone in the top half could be heard throughout the ballpark.
Soto was called out on strikes without swinging the bat, probably because López kept missing the zone. Nationals manager Davey Martinez yelled, “Pay attention to the game” prior to the strikeout and the situation escalated.
Scherzer made it through the seventh at 111 pitches. He struck out four of the first five batters, Santander the aggressive exception, and fanned three more in the fourth to waste singles by Núñez and Severino.
Cedric Mullins reached on an infield hit in the fifth, but Scherzer struck out two more to give him nine with no walks.
The 10th strikeout came against Mullins leading off the seventh, but Santander found the flag court again. His 22 RBIs led the majors after the ball finally landed.
“I was trying to be aggressive in the strike zone,” Santander said. “He’s a pitcher who likes to attack early and often, so I tried to be ready for that. It’s one of those things you have to ready every single at-bat, every single pitch, and be aggressive with him.”
Phillips walked four batters, hit one, threw a wild pitch and recorded three outs before Shawn Armstrong inherited a bases-loaded, two-out situation in the sixth and retired Kieboom on a fly ball.
The only other run off the bullpen was unearned. And it took down the Orioles on a day that they so badly wanted to lift Means.
“It wasn’t easy, but one of those things you have to do,” Means said. “It’s my job and I have to go out there every five days and I’m looking forward to getting out there again.”
Asked how he’s handled the past few weeks, Means replied, “About as well as I can.”
“Being home with the family was good and getting to see them and kind of be there for them and make sure they’re doing all right was good,” he said. “It hasn’t really set in. Today was a pretty emotional day, just getting back to the job. It’s been tough.”