On a night at Camden Yards when the Orioles’ pitching challenges were on full display, a doubleheader in Bowie offered a glimpse of the promise the second half of the season could hold when it comes to the club’s starting rotation.
Left-hander John Means, a 2019 All-Star, made his second rehabilitation start on his way back from a shoulder strain, then one of the club’s top pitching prospects, right-hander Mike Baumann, had another in a recent run of encouraging starts that makes it plausible that he could make his major league debut at some point in the second half.
Means’ return is a given; he’ll pitch early next week for Triple-A Norfolk in Memphis then rejoin the team in his hometown of Kansas City after the All-Star break to possibly pitch the next week at Tampa Bay.
Baumann, whose climb to the majors was derailed last year by an elbow injury, is simply trying to regain the form that would force him into the Orioles’ second-half pitching plans.
“It’s been a little up and down, but I think outing to outing I’ve seen some progress,” Baumann said. “I’m just pumped to be back out here after getting shut down. It’s been long. It’s been a tough road. But you learn from that, and just try and keep getting better.”
Before Baumann, the team’s No. 8 prospect according to Baseball America, got a chance to face Richmond on Friday night, he and his teammates had the chance to watch Means work up-close. The Orioles’ star left-hander went on the injured list in early June with a reoccurrence of a shoulder problem he’s had the past two seasons, and Means allowed four runs (two earned) on a pair of home runs in three innings of work.
He cracked that the eventful outing reminded him of his years spent as a minor leaguer in Bowie, back before he made the improvements that allowed him to be the Orioles’ best starter over the past few seasons.
When the time comes for him to rejoin the Orioles in the second half and stabilize their patchwork rotation, he’s confident he’ll be ready.
“I’m just glad I’m healthy,” Means said. “Glad when I get extension that it doesn’t hurt anymore. That is what you take away from it. Obviously, you know the feel stuff is important, too. Thought my slider felt pretty good. For the most part, the changeup I threw a couple of good ones, a couple bad ones. Just the fastball command was kind of all over the place. I threw some good ones, but some bad ones that got hit.”
Such a search for consistency has been Baumann’s task at Bowie, a stop on the minor league road that he dominated in 2019 and where he impressed club officials and staff as one of the top pitchers at their secondary camp last summer.
But his flexor mass strain late in the summer shut him down, and he pitched sporadically in spring training before being shut down for a few weeks in April as his soreness returned.
He didn’t break camp with a minor league team, and made two good rehab starts at Low-A Delmarva to begin the season before being assigned to Bowie. What seemed like it might have been another rehab start before he went to Norfolk where he would have been had he been healthy, however, has been a struggle. He didn’t get out of the first inning in his first start there, and had an 8.64 ERA with more walks than strikeouts over his first six starts for the Baysox.
Lately, though, Baumann has been closer to his best self. He struck out six with one walk and a run in on three hits last week, and allowed two runs on four hits and struck out five without a walk Friday. His fastball sat 92-94 mph with some at 95 mph and one at 96, and he threw some swing-and-miss sliders as he focused more on his overall pitch mix.
He said the difference the past few outings has been more mental than anything else, as he’s tried to simply get back to who he was at his best in 2019. He threw a no-hitter that year and shared the organization’s Jim Palmer Pitcher of the Year Award with current Bowie teammate Grayson Rodriguez with a relentless attack mindset and an arsenal that was electric at times.
Even with the elbow injury looming over the situation, he was still added to the 40-man roster this year and has seen every prospect in the impressive 2019 Bowie rotation with him — Keegan Akin, Dean Kremer, Zac Lowther, and Alexander Wells — make his major league debut in the past year.
Baumann has been happy to watch them succeed, but his omission from the group of young pitchers trying to stick with the Orioles has been glaring this year. Most of that is owed to the injury, but Baumann acknowledges that “command and consistency is really what I need to kind of harness” as he tries to join them.
It’s possible that as he gets back to his best form, he’ll join the rotation at Norfolk in short order. That would, in practicality, put him on the radar for a major league call-up just by virtue of him being on the 40-man roster. If he’s healthy in Norfolk and it’s his day to pitch, the Orioles would be hard-pressed to find a better option to fill a pitching need.
On the other side, the rocky introduction period some of their prospects have had to the majors this year could mean the team is trying to ensure that Baumann, who behind Rodriguez and Hall is their top pitching prospect, is as fully formed as possible and has no lingering impact from his injury layoff before testing him in the majors.
Baumann knows that when his debut happens is out of his control, though seeing his mid-90s fastball and imposing demeanor on the mound could be a jolt for the Orioles rotation and a restless fan base going forward. All he can do to contribute to that is continue to perform as he did Friday.
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“I think it’s just coming back, it’s just been a slow buildup,” Baumann said. “I just want to get back to who I was.”
Saturday, 4:05 p.m.
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Sunday, 1:05 p.m.
TV: MASN Radio: 105.7 FM