Even as the Orioles came back before falling behind again late to the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday, the focus will be on that fourth inning, when left-hander John Means was last on the mound before an unceremonious departure that will drive worry throughout Baltimore.
Means cruised through the fourth inning, needing just 12 pitches to retire the side in order. But midway through the home half of that inning, right-hander Joey Krehbiel popped up in the bullpen, despite Means sitting at 51 pitches.
And when the fifth inning opened, there Krehbiel was, replacing Means on the mound after Baltimore’s most reliable starter allowed two runs in his second start of the season. Means withdrew after he felt left forearm tightness, the team announced, a troublesome update for a team with little consistency and few places to turn for solid starting pitching.
Without Means, the Orioles’ bullpen once again held their own and the offense showed a spurt of life. But after the Orioles tied the game at 2 with a pair of runs in the bottom of the eighth inning, the Brewers answered with two in the ninth, leaving Baltimore with a 4-2 win and a series victory.
The score was secondary for the Orioles, however, with Means exiting early overshadowing the team’s fifth loss in six games this season. At least externally, Means wasn’t overly concerned with the early departure. He said he experienced similar tightness during Friday’s season opener against the Tampa Bay Rays, stemming from a curveball before spreading to the rest of his arsenal.
In the third inning Wednesday, another curveball tripped the forearm tightness again, something he said he’s never dealt with before in his career.
“I felt it throughout the week, but it progressively got better throughout the week and then felt great the first two innings,” Means said. “And then felt it on one pitch and kind of kept feeling it and battling through it. But it wasn’t tingly fingers or anything like that. It was just the forearm.”
Means will undergo further testing Thursday, when the Orioles have an off day before the New York Yankees arrive for a three-game series at Camden Yards. The 28-year-old ace said he’ll receive an MRI “at some point in the next day or so, just to make sure” there isn’t a larger issue at play. He hopes to get back to throwing in the next few days, casting doubt over an immediate return to the mound.
“I’m not going to rush to anything until we know what results come back, know what the results are tomorrow,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Staying positive with it and optimistic and hopefully it’s just a little bit of tightness he felt in the forearm and we’ll see.”
Means was expected to push beyond what he produced in his first start, when he needed 84 pitches to get through four frames. Hyde has been wary of pushing his starting pitchers too long, considering the shortened spring training build-up time.
There wasn’t an obvious indication of an injury or lack of stamina and Means retired his final seven batters. According to MLB Statcast, Means’ average fastball was 92.8 mph against the Rays last week and dropped to 91.6 Wednesday.
Means worked quickly through the first inning of action but ran into trouble in the second with a one-out walk to second baseman Keston Hiura, leaving a fastball well out of the zone on a full count. With two outs, Means left a slider hanging over the plate, and first baseman Rowdy Tellez blasted it to the deepest part of center field to drive in the first run of the game.
And then third baseman Mike Brosseau extended his career tally against Means to 6-for-12 with seven RBIs when his single drove home Tellez, who also had an RBI double in the ninth. But Means settled in from there, needing nine pitches to retire the side in the third and 12 in the fourth, even as the tightness began.
Any absence for Means would leave Baltimore’s rotation in disarray. When Means missed nearly two months last season with a left shoulder strain, the remaining members of the rotation posted a 7.63 ERA.
“It’s frustrating, for sure,” Means said. “Wanted to get rolling and wanted to start the season strong. It’s a long season and we’ll get this out of the way, get going. Still confident I’m able to go.”
Strikeouts pile up
Catcher Anthony Bemboom singled in the third inning and took second on a wild pitch, setting up a chance to break through against right-hander Corbin Burnes. But center fielder Cedric Mullins flew out and first baseman Ryan Mountcastle struck out, continuing a dreadful streak to begin the season.
Mountcastle’s swing and miss became the Orioles’ 26th of 28 strikeouts with runners in scoring position this season. Strikeouts 27 and 28 came from Mullins and Ramón Urías, who came to the plate in the eighth with a chance to give the Orioles a lead.
The team is hitting 5-for-55 in those situations this season, with more than half of those at-bats ending in a strikeout.
“We’re getting a little anxious,” Urías said.
But the strikeouts go beyond situations with runners in scoring position. Entering Wednesday, no MLB team had struck out more than Baltimore, a club boasting a 28.4% chase rate on balls out of the zone, according to MLB Statcast, the 10th worst rate in baseball.
And by the time Wednesday came to a close, the Orioles had struck out 68 times in six games. The previous record for most strikeouts by a team over the first six games of the season came last year, when Baltimore struck out 77 times.
Base coaches absent
First base coach Anthony Sanders and third base coach Tony Mansolino missed the game due to illness, Hyde said pregame. Wednesday marked the second straight game Sanders had missed. In their place were José Hernández at first and Fredi Gonzalez at third.
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Hyde, citing the club’s policy, declined to elaborate further on the illnesses.
A comeback and a departure
As the Orioles dealt with the concern surrounding Means’ injury, two prospects at Triple-A Norfolk faced diverging courses.
Outfielder Yusniel Diaz landed on the injured list Wednesday with a hamstring strain suffered the night before, the latest in a series of injuries that have prevented Diaz from finding his way to the big leagues. Earlier this month, Diaz said through a team interpreter that he’s “trying to manage health,” but he tweaked his hamstring as he ran down the line to first base.
Diaz has had multiple lower-body injuries since arriving as part of the Manny Machado trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2018.
For outfielder Kyle Stowers, though, Wednesday marked a return to game action eight days after bruising his hand on a hit by pitch during the Triple-A season opener. Stowers is the Orioles’ No. 7 prospect, according to Baseball America.
In his return to the Triple-A lineup, Stowers finished 1-for-3 with a double, RBI and two walks.