John Means had waited to feel those jitters for 484 days — the feeling that he’d be back on the mound again in a competitive game, back healthy after a career-pausing injury and surgery that cost him more than a year.
“It’s kind of what you search for when you haven’t done it in a long time,” Means said.
As the Orioles left-hander warmed up prior to his first start since undergoing Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in April 2022, Means felt it.
The nerves were there, and Means was glad, and then they evaporated almost as soon as they had appeared — back in a routine of pitch and catch he’s known all his life. He had arrived in Richmond to make his first rehab start on Aug. 10, for Double-A Bowie, and allowed one hit in two scoreless innings.
More than that, Means left the mound feeling good. There was no pain, and any soreness that lingered was nothing more than what he usually felt after a start. Now, Means has completed three rehab starts and is preparing for a fourth, potentially late this week, where his pitch count will go up again.
With it, a return to the field in Baltimore approaches. By September, Means could step onto the mound at Camden Yards, giving the Orioles another pitching option for a final surge toward the postseason.
“That’s the plan,” Means said Tuesday from Camden Yards; he’s with the Orioles while the organization decides when and where he’ll make his next rehab start. “I just take it day by day and control what I can control. I’m not thinking too far ahead right now. I’ve been doing plenty of that in the early stages, so right now I’m just trying to take it day by day.”
Means pitched just eight innings for Baltimore in 2022 before the extent of his elbow injury became apparent. But Tommy John surgery isn’t the career-ending setback it once was, and many pitchers around the league have found ways to return at, or beyond, the level they previously reached.
His return might’ve come earlier this season, but a strain in his upper back in late May delayed Means’ timetable. It forced him to slow down and scale back his workload. But Means is now at the point at which he can increase his workload with his eyes set toward being reinstated off the 60-day injured list.
In his first start, Means threw 28 pitches in two innings. He was pulled after 47 in 1 1/3 frames of his second start, having allowed four runs on three hits and two walks. And on Sunday, Means threw 57 pitches in four innings, striking out four while allowing two hits and one run.
That latest outing felt the best, because “I started feeling like a starting pitcher again, building into the third and fourth,” Means said. “Hopefully just keep doing that.”
Despite the runs against him in his second appearance, there’s more Means is focused on than the result.
“It’s more just making sure every pitch is moving how it should, you’re locating how you should,” Means said. “It’s tough because you’re not really scouting any of the teams you’re facing. You don’t know if they’re gonna ambush you or whatever. You just want to get ahead in the count and put guys away. The results aren’t that important, but at the same time, you don’t want to give up too much. As long as you feel good and you kind of build as the outing goes.”
When Means next appears, perhaps for Triple-A Norfolk, his pitch count will be at 75 pitches — another step forward.
Even during his recovery, Means has been an important presence for a young Orioles roster. He’s joined them on road trips each of the last two seasons, and his progress has been incremental. He walked around with a brace, a visible reminder of his ailment, then slowly began working back into baseball activities.
All the while, teammates picked his brain — or merely joked with him, a vital practice in what could be a tense industry.
Means’ presence is important because he’s the most accomplished starter on their staff, even though he’s missed 15 months. Means became an All-Star in 2019 with a 3.60 ERA for the Orioles. He threw a no-hitter in 2021 against the Seattle Mariners and finished the season with a 3.62 ERA. He was Baltimore’s opening day starter in 2021 and 2022.
Those notes are all in the rearview mirror. But the horizon line is steadily approaching with each rehab start, and before long, Means will be back in Baltimore.