Means: “It feels like such a blessing and just so humbling”

John Means used to be a fringe prospect in the Orioles’ minor league system or completely ignored by outside evaluators, an anonymity that he relished.

A status that no longer applies to him.

You can’t be chosen as your team’s opening day starter two years in a row and fly under the radar.

“It definitely did (motivate), but it was also kind of nice, too, to be honest,” Means said today on his Zoom call. “You’re not the face, you’re not getting interviewed from low A all the way to the big leagues like some of these high prospects do, so I was able to kind of stay in the shadows a little bit and develop and really focus on myself and not have to worry about the outside noise. I think that really prepared me for this time and, now that I am in the spotlight, to be able to handle it.”

Means-Throws-White-Sidebar.jpgLeft shoulder weakness prevented Means from starting the June 24 opener in Boston, but he’s avoided the injured list and set to give it another shot. The same honor in the same location.

“Both years, just being named the opening day starter, it feels like such a blessing and just so humbling,” he said. “I take every day as it comes and it’s such a cool experience that I will hopefully make this time around. It’s unbelievable. If you had told me this three years ago, I would have told you you’re crazy, and now that it’s kind of set in, it’s become more real and I look forward to it.”

Means understands that he isn’t a finished product, that there’s room for improvement despite the back-to-back opening day nods, his selection to the 2019 American League All-Star team and runner-up finish in Rookie of the Year voting.

“Just be more consistent, just consistency every five days and being the same pitcher over and over and over again that I know I can be, and that’s the name of the game,” he said. “It’s part of growing up in this game and becoming an older guy in the clubhouse like I am in this clubhouse, you’ve just got to be more consistent, and that’s going to be a goal this year.”

Being a fastball/changeup pitcher wasn’t going to advance Means’ career in a major league rotation. The secondary stuff had to evolve. His breaking pitches had to at least be planted in the hitters’ minds and expand his repertoire.

The curveball was used 12.6 percent of the time in 2020, per BrooksBaseball.net, and the slider 10.3. He used the curve only 5.9 percent in 2019.

“It’s been huge,” he said. “The way the curveball came along last year, it completely changed the game. I mean, especially in today’s game and how good all these hitters are, you can’t just have two pitches like I did basically in 2019. You’ve got to be able to mix it up, keep them on their toes. It’s going to be part of it, and so if you don’t have a breaking pitch, it’s going to be hard to pitch in this league.”

Growth also comes in the ability to put away hitters with two strikes, which, as manager Brandon Hyde noted yesterday, can challenge Means as they keep finding ways to stay alive and extend the at-bat. Pitch counts soar in the process.

“There’s a lot of foul balls,” Means said. “Honestly, it comes down to execution. I’m good at getting to two strikes, but it’s just putting guys away. It’s something I thought the last couple games of the year I felt like I was doing well and it was just trying to stay attacking, but it’s that put-away pitch, that last pitch that you need that swing and miss that I’ve got to take care of and just limit the foul balls.

“I think most of the year last year I was leaving a lot of balls over the middle of the plate and that was part of the reason, so just with two strikes not going right down the middle, but working the edges and just executing.”

Means made his major league debut at Fenway Park in a relief role in Game 1 of a Sept. 26, 2018 doubleheader, allowing five runs in 3 1/3 innings in a 19-3 loss. He’s a few weeks away from going back and dressing in the same cramped clubhouse.

Beauty is in the eye of the baseball holder.

“Fenway will always kind of hold a special place in my heart,” he said. “That was my debut and it was such a cool experience then, even though I didn’t do well. It was just so cool and I love pitching there every time we go, I really do. The park, the field, the atmosphere. I know we won’t have quite the atmosphere that we’re used to, but it’s still going to be a really cool experience.”

Notes: Rule 5 pitchers Mac Sceroler and Tyler Wells, Dillon Tate and Conner Greene are available to pitch tonight after starter Matt Harvey.

Jorge López makes his second spring start Sunday afternoon against the Twins in Sarasota, taking Félix Hernandez’s turn, and Means starts Monday afternoon against the Pirates in Bradenton.

Yes, the Orioles go back to Bradenton.

More notes: Maikel Franco played third base and Richie Martin played shortstop in today’s intrasquad game. They’ll be in Sunday’s lineup, with Martin starting at second base.

Thomas Eshelman started and was stretched out. Keegan Akin tossed a couple of innings.

Outfielder DJ Stewart also appeared in the game, but he still isn’t full-go “from a sprint standpoint yet,” Hyde said.

“I told him to take it easy, but he swung the bat very well in the game,” Hyde said.

“With a hamstring, you just want to be careful with it. I’d like for him to be 100 percent healthy before we throw him into a spring training-type game. At this point we’ll recheck him and see about game action in a couple days, but we’re just not going to push the envelope with him with a hamstring.”

Fernando Abad made a relief appearance today after pitching last night.

Chris Davis didn’t play in the game. He’s still got a sore back and isn’t in uniform.

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