Before Lars Nootbaar stepped into the box at Camden Yards, marking the end of a 17-month wait for this moment, John Means filled his lungs. He breathed deeply, in and out, then dug his cleat into the mound and fired his first pitch.
And about an hour and a half later, Means could take another deep breath — this one after 75 pitches over five innings. He smiled and laughed in the Orioles dugout. The relief was evident, even as he later downplayed the idea of a moral victory; his first start since undergoing Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery last year and navigating the lengthy rehab process that follows had gone well.
The fact Means left the mound healthy was grounds for celebration alone, but his overall performance was serviceable. He allowed three runs in those five innings, including two solo homers, yet the greater picture in Tuesday’s 5-2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals was that Means was on that mound at all.
“Just try to stay within, work on the breaths and be in the moment mentally,” Means said. “I’ve had a lot of time to try to work on that over the past couple seasons to try to take it day by day.”
The start laid the groundwork for what could be a major lift to Baltimore as it nears the postseason. Even with the loss, the Orioles are closing in on clinching a playoff berth at some point late this week, depending on results elsewhere and in Baltimore. An American League East division title is the next checklist item within reach.
Adding Means to a six-man rotation in September alleviates a rising number of innings for their young starters. And more strong results down the stretch could propel Means into the playoff rotation, which likely will be four starters, or secure his place as a long reliever out of the bullpen.
After his start, manager Brandon Hyde said the Orioles are “talking about a lot of things right now,” not committing to Means making his next start on schedule.
That’s all in the future. What came Tuesday was the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next.
“It was pretty close to where our target was for him in his first time out,” Hyde said. “The adrenaline in the big leagues, everything else that goes along with it, is way different than any sort of minor league rehab start. So, really happy with how he looked.”
It was the conclusion of a rehab process that lasted 17 months and included six minor league appearances since August. What comes next is still to be determined, although Tuesday’s five innings were a solid starting point, even as the offense behind him stranded 10 runners against St. Louis pitching.
Means peppered the strike zone throughout but was left to watch as a high fastball above the zone was still powered out of the yard by Paul Goldschmidt. The 30-year-old southpaw fell victim to a pair of bloop singles in the second before the Cardinals loaded the bases with no outs through a fielder’s choice, yet Means limited the damage to one sacrifice fly.
“He pounded the zone,” catcher James McCann said. “For me, a guy coming back who’s been away from the game as long as he has, pounding the zone the way he did, going right after guys, that was really good to see.”
From there, Means retired eight straight Cardinals hitters. He forced whiffs on five change-ups — the pitch that helped Means reach his pre-injury heights — before Richie Palacios hit the first of his two homers.
“Getting out there in the first inning, I had a lot more nerves I think before the game than I usually do, kind of felt like a debut again,” Means said. “But once I got out there and started pitching again, it felt more natural.”
Palacios, who attended Towson University, powered another homer against right-hander Jorge López later, one of the two runs that crossed against Baltimore’s newly reacquired reliever. And Baltimore’s offense struggled throughout, unable to capitalize on right-hander Adam Wainwright’s uneven season for the Cardinals.
Entering Tuesday, Wainwright had allowed six or more runs in four of his previous six outings. The 42-year-old starter avoided damage until Anthony Santander and Ryan O’Hearn produced RBIs in the fifth inning. He allowed seven hits and two runs and earned his 199th career win in the process.
And even after Wainwright left, the opportunities fell by the wayside for the Orioles. They finished 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position and stranded 10 baserunners.
But it’s the deep breath from Means that matters most — both his first as he initially took the mound and his next, when five innings were under his belt. Means is back. That, if nothing else, is good.