In the seventeen months between the time John Means walked off the mound at Camden Yards and when he walks onto it again Tuesday, the complexion around the Orioles ballpark has completely changed.
When he departed prematurely from his second start of the 2022 season, Baltimore was still in a waiting room of sorts. Catcher Adley Rutschman wouldn’t debut for another month, and the surge that would follow his arrival wasn’t a guarantee.
On a young team, Means was the elder statesman. The left-hander was drafted in 2014, experienced the Orioles’ most recent trip to the postseason in 2016 as a minor leaguer, and once he debuted in 2018, endured the rebuild that gripped the organization for the next several seasons.
Then, right as the rebuild was approaching a conclusion, Means departed with forearm tightness — a prognosis that led to seventeen months of waiting and watching.
“A lot has happened since he walked off the mound here in April of 2022,” executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said. “A lot has happened for us; a lot has happened for him.”
Means has been as much a part of the team as anyone — only he hasn’t pitched.
Less than a month after his Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, Means was back at Camden Yards for check-ins and moral support. He joined the Orioles on a road trip to Kansas City because his parents still live in that area. He offered advice to Baltimore’s other starting pitchers when asked and watched with excitement as his teammates built on the success of 2022 with a 2023 campaign that finds the Orioles leading the American League.
Watching will turn to doing on Tuesday, though, when the 30-year-old makes his return to the Camden Yards mound in a start against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Is he nervous?
“Yeah,” Means laughed, standing at his locker in the home clubhouse — a locker that never lost his name tag, no matter how long he was off the field. “A little.”
But more than anything, Means is looking forward to this. For so many days during his lengthy recovery, he tried to stay focused on the present, to avoid daydreams of his far-off return, and enlisted instead a mindset that fixated on each daily progression.
His metal brace was removed. His scar healed to an almost unnoticeable sliver. He lifted weights, ran, picked up a baseball for soft toss. He stepped onto a mound to throw fastballs, then added spin, then threw full strength.
As each step on a long checklist was ticked off, the Orioles made their own progress. They rattled off wins down the stretch in 2022, making a late push toward an unexpected postseason berth. They have only improved from there, and when Means takes the mound Tuesday it will be with his club counting down single-digit games until they secure a playoff berth.
“It’s crazy how far we’ve come,” Means said earlier this year, thinking back to the new leadership that joined ahead of the 2019 season and ushered in change for Baltimore. “You could see the building blocks. You could tell we were starting from the ground up, which we needed to. But the tide has finally risen.”
Means went into the 2022 season as Baltimore’s most experienced starter. In 2019, his first full season, Means earned an All-Star nomination as he threw 155 innings for an Orioles team that lost more than 100 games for the second straight season. Means threw a no-hitter in 2021, growing into his role as a rotation mainstay.
That earned Means an opening day start last season, but after eight innings and two appearances, the injury paused all of this.
Returning to this point took patience. He experienced a back strain in May from a non-throwing exercise that pushed this expected return even further. But after six minor league appearances in which his pitch count reached a high of 86, Means will step onto the mound at Camden Yards again.
He’ll pitch Tuesday for “as far as Hyde lets me go,” Means said. In recent months, every workout he did was closely monitored, every pitch analyzed. Now Means is looking forward to the counterintuitive silence that will come with pitching for Baltimore.
“You’re under a microscope for so long, I’m excited to just go out there and be free,” Means said.
With the postseason approaching, Means’ return could prove to be a major boost for the Orioles’ pitching staff. But Elias and manager Brandon Hyde both tempered expectations in the buildup to Means’ return.
“We’ve got to remember,” Elias said, “he’s missed a lot of time.”
They don’t know exactly how he’ll look, or how long he will last.
The only certainty around Tuesday’s return, then, is how Means will feel with a ball in his hand as he stands atop the Camden Yards mound, staring down a batter on this stage for the first time in 17 months.
“It’s just really exciting,” Means said. “All the times during the rehab — all the tough times — are coming to fruition right now.”