John Means had finally done it.

He had returned to a major league mound after a 17-month hiatus, his elbow healed after Tommy John surgery and a back injury. It was perfect timing. The Orioles, the only team he has ever played for, were finally out of the dark days and in the playoffs for the first time in his career. Means was pitching like he hadn’t missed a beat.

But, as he was preparing to start in the American League Division Series, he felt tightness in his elbow again. He had an MRI, and he was told it would be best for him to end his season.

Means was relegated to the bench to watch his team get swept by the Rangers in the ALDS, in large part due to the Orioles’ poor pitching performance.

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“It was tough,” Means, speaking about the setback for the first time at the Orioles’ Birdland Caravan, said Thursday. “I didn’t want to [sit], but I think it was the smartest path for me. Obviously, mentally, it’s been tough over the last couple of years, but that was the toughest.”

As hard as it was in the moment, pulling back may have been the best decision for the longevity of his career. He’s felt no pain since, he said, and has had a normal offseason. He’s fully healthy and hopeful that he’ll pitch a full season. He’ll join a rotation that is expected to include Grayson Rodriguez, Dean Kremer and Kyle Bradish.

“I’m just excited to have a normal spring training and feel good and build up normally,” Means said. “Just looking forward to it.”

Means, an 11th-round pick in 2014, debuted in 2018. A year later, he was the Orioles’ All-Star. By 2021, he was a rare bright spot in an otherwise barren 110-loss season, pitching a no-hitter against the Mariners.

Then came the initial elbow problems. As the Orioles were finally coming to the spotlight, Means was fading from it. He needed elbow reconstruction surgery, typically a 12- to 18-month recovery, after two starts in 2022.

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Means headed home to Texas, watching as the next wave of prospects, led by Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson, arrived in the big leagues. The Orioles were finally winning, but, after enduring three 100-loss seasons, Means wasn’t a part of it. He visited the team as much as he could, but another setback, a back injury, pushed his timeline back.

Means finally returned in September. When he left the team in April 2022, the Orioles were in last place in the American League East. Now, they were in first.

There was no guarantee that Means would be the same pitcher he was before, Tommy John surgery is risky. His first two starts — five-inning affairs with three runs and one run allowed — were a positive sign that he could still do this. His next two — in which he pitched into the seventh inning — all but guaranteed that.

More important, after 17 months of wondering what if, he had peace of mind.

“I think I had confidence in what could happen, but I’d be lying to you if I [said I] didn’t want to see it happen too,” Means said. “You spend so much time off the field, sometimes you question, you’re not really sure what’s going to happen. To see the results was definitely good for me mentally.”

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This year will be one of the most important of his career. He’ll be a free agent following this season, his performance and health dictating the level, and location, of his next contract.

“I love this organization; it’s all that I know,” Means said. “I’m just looking forward to this year and taking it day by day.”

Danielle Allentuck covers the Orioles for The Baltimore Banner. She previously reported on the Rockies for the Denver Gazette and general sports assignments for The New York Times as part of its fellowship program. A Maryland native, Danielle grew up in Montgomery County and graduated from Ithaca College.

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