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Orioles’ John Means finishes 2020 with flourish, but Randal Grichuk strikes again in Blue Jays’ 5-2 victory

The return to form of All-Star left-hander John Means over the 2020 season’s final weeks was going to be considered a welcome sight for the Orioles regardless of how his final outing went Saturday.

Means' season finale was not only a continuation of those efforts, but also a step beyond.

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Although the Toronto Blue Jays came away with a 5-2 victory, Means carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning, with Cavan Biggio’s two-out homer accounting for the only damage against him. Means ended the season with a 1.52 ERA across his final four starts, allowing no more than one earned run in any of those outings while striking out 30 over 23 2/3 innings.

“I wish there was 100 games left," Means said. "Just felt like me. It’s been a nice breath of fresh air the last few starts.”

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Still, Means was a hard-luck loser Saturday, as nemesis Randal Grichuk broke it open with a three-run homer after his exit and the Orioles (24-35) were unable to complete a rally in the penultimate game of the regular season.

Announced as Baltimore’s Opening Day starter, Means instead began the season on the injured list with arm fatigue. In his season debut, he flashed a spike in velocity from a 2019 campaign that made him the Orioles' lone All-Star selection and the runner-up for the American League Rookie of the Year award, but he failed to get results with the improved stuff.

The same carried through in his first handful of outings, his season pausing again following the death of his father, Alan. Through six starts, Means had an 8.10 ERA.

“I think it was one big learning experience," Means said. "I experienced a lot of things this season that are pretty tough, and to get through that and to try and find myself again was a struggle. I thank the coaches for that. I think they worked hard, too. I think it’s going to help me a lot, coming in this next season and the season after that. I was horrible so long, and to come out of that and have some success, it’s been huge.”

A conversation between Means and manager Brandon Hyde, one in which Hyde told the 27-year-old he seemed to be pitching out of frustration rather than simply pitching, sparked a turnaround. Means followed with consecutive six-inning, one-run starts on a road trip through New York while pitching with ticked-down velocity. Last week against the AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays, he struck out 12 in 5 2/3 innings, at one point tying the franchise record with seven strikeouts in a row.

“This is as dominant as I’ve ever seen a pitcher, these last two starts for him,” outfielder Austin Hays said. “It’s been unbelievable to watch.”

Although Means said he had better curveball command in his last start, he was on a similar run Saturday when the Blue Jays spoiled his no-hit bid. After a one-out walk to former Oriole Jonathan Villar in the first, Means retired 16 straight Toronto batters. From the last out of the fourth inning through the first of the sixth, he struck five straight, but Jonathan Davis ended the streak by lining out to left on the 10th pitch of his at-bat

Two pitches later, Biggio tagged an elevated slider out to right-center. It was Means' 96th pitch, likely saving Hyde from the difficult decision associated with balancing a pitcher’s high pitch count with the pursuit of a no-hitter. Hyde said afterward he had a number in mind at which he would’ve pulled Means regardless, but the homer wasn’t enough to quell his pride in Means' reemergence.

“I just love that he’s attacking hitters with his fastball," Hyde said. "I think the changeup is back. I like both breaking balls. They can’t sit on a pitch. He’s pitching like a top-of-the-rotation guy. I think that he learned a lot this year, and he learned that he can’t just try to overthrow and get the ball by guys, but he’s still got to pitch. I think that’s a huge step forward, what he’s dealt with and how he’s finished the year going into next year.

“For me, that wasn’t John Means the first few starts. This was him, and this was the kind of guy he’s going to be. And he’s just going get better.”

Means got Villar to ground out to complete the sixth with 99 pitches, ending his second full season with a 4.53 ERA. He plans to spend his offseason working at P3 Premier Pitching & Performance, the St. Louis facility where he trained before his breakout rookie season.

“I’m going to take this momentum into the offseason," Means said. "I’m going to just try to trap this mentality that I’m in right now and just work on that, work on cleaning some stuff up going into the offseason. I like where I’m at now, and I don’t really want to look back.”

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Grichuk, again

Before the game, Hyde noted that Grichuk, who homered Friday for his sixth homer against the Orioles among 11 total this season, was out of Toronto’s lineup.

“Probably can come off the bench, though,” he cautioned.

Unfortunately for the Orioles, Hyde was correct. Grichuk entered in the sixth after Lourdes Gurriel Jr. exited with a bruised left foot, and in his first at-bat in the seventh, he followed a hit batter and error with a first-pitch homer off Hunter Harvey.

Grichuk is slashing .342/.366/.947 against the Orioles but .259/.301/.385 against all other clubs. In his career facing Baltimore, he has 19 home runs and 44 RBIs in 39 games, five more homers and 11 more RBIs than he has against any other team.

“Somebody’s getting him out, I know that," Hyde said pregame. "Just not us very often.”

Off the wall

Hays led off the Orioles' half of the eighth with an infield single, his third hit amid his seventh multi-hit contest in 12 games since coming off the injured list. José Igelsias then doubled off the wall to score him.

Ryan Mountcastle followed with an off-the-wall hit, as well, but right fielder Teoscar Hernández threw him out at second as Iglesias scored.

The outfield assist killed the Orioles' rally, as their final five batters were retired while the Blue Jays added an unearned run off Tanner Scott in the bottom of the eighth.

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