That it was the Orioles’ only hit goes a long way to explaining their 4-1 loss at Progressive Field, with breakout starter John Means not at his best but keeping his team close enough for a comeback that simply never came against Cleveland’s Adam Plutko and a shutdown bullpen.
“I just thought the guy threw a really good game,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “I thought he pitched outstanding, and we just had a tough time getting it going off him. He mixed pitches really well, and was throwing on the corners, and didn't give us a whole lot of balls to drive. I think you tip your hat sometimes. The guy was great.”
The last time the Orioles (15-30) were held to just one hit was Sept. 12, 2018, in a 10-0 loss to the Oakland Athletics. Their previous season low was three hits on April 17 against the Tampa Bay Rays, though this was a game Saturday in which it looked just as likely that both sides would be having the same problem.
Both Means (5-4) and Plutko (1-0) turned over the opposing lineup without allowing a hit before hitting bumps in the fourth inning. Mancini's home run came with two outs to put the Orioles ahead 1-0, and was a missile that to Hyde illustrates what Mancini does at his best.
“When he's right, he really stays on the ball,” Hyde said. “Not looking to pull, but pull because the ball shows up on the inner part of the plate and he catches it out in front. The way he drove the ball out the other night to right field, just missed one to right-center also today. When he's letting the ball travel and he's swinging at his pitch, he uses the whole field and he’s so strong he can get the ball out of any part of the ballpark.”
“He just left a changeup kind of in the middle of the plate, and I took advantage of it,” Mancini said. “I was looking for a fastball there and just kind of reacted to it. He made a mistake and luckily I put a good swing on it and ended up with a good result, but I think overall, there were few mistakes made. They pitched really well. We didn't really capitalize or take advantage of those. I think we fouled some pitches off we maybe could have hit overall, but they really kept us in check up there.”
Plutko’s one mistake was covered for quickly as Means also hit a rough patch in the fourth. Carlos Santana broke up his no-hit bid with a double off the center-field wall that center fielder Stevie Wilkerson got a bad read on. Four pitches later, Means hung a curveball to cleanup hitter Jordan Luplow for a two-run home run.
Rookie Oscar Mercado's first big league hit was a double in the fifth, and he scored on a single by Francisco Lindor to extend Cleveland's lead to 3-1. Means then allowed a single and issued a walk to load the bases, but got out of a tense moment to when Rio Ruiz started a 5-4-3 double-play with Luplow at the plate to end the inning.
“He came through it with a guy that had already taken him deep in a tough at-bat, a 3-2 count, to get him to roll over on a ground ball,” Hyde said. “A nice flip by Rio [Ruiz] and a great turn by Jonny [Villar] and an unbelievable pick by [Chris Davis], and that's winning baseball. We didn't come back to win that game, and we didn't score enough, obviously, but that's a winning baseball play and good teams make those plays in those spots.”
In allowing three earned runs in five innings, the start counts as Means' worst of his high-flying major league career, even if half his rotation mates would count such a day as a success.
“I think my fastball was good,” Means said. “I just didn't really have my secondary pitches today. The defense behind me was really good, with Rio making that play in the fifth. It saved probably two runs, so I wasn't obviously pleased with it, but to get through that and battle like I did, I was happy with that.
“I was just frustrated. I was nibbling, they weren't swinging at bad pitches, which, I mean, kudos to them at this point. I just feel like the walks, the three walks — I'm not a guy who walks a lot of guys. To have those was really frustrating.”
The Orioles only threatened once more after Means and Plutko gave way to their respective bullpens. After two scoreless innings of relief from Paul Fry, Joey Rickard reached on a two-out error in the eight. Pinch-hitter Renato Núñez walked on four pitches to put the tying run on base, but Villar struck out on three pitches to end the threat.
Miguel Castro entered for the eighth inning and promptly allowed a home run to Santana to account for the final margin.
After Núñez hit for shortstop Richie Martin, the Orioles got creative with their infield defense to keep utility man Hanser Alberto in reserve on the bench. Villar took over at shortstop, and Ruiz played on the pull-side of the infield for each batter with Núñez on the opposite side, where the ball is less likely to be hit.
Alberto was being held in reserve to pinch-hit for Ruiz in the ninth inning against left-handed closer Brad Hand, Hyde said, prompting the fluctuating positions in the eighth.
“Rio's such a good defender, I just want him on the pull-side, no matter who,” Hyde said. “He's playing elite defense, and I'm going to put Rio where I think the ball has a chance of being hit.”