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John Means is on the 10-day injured list. The Orioles can’t risk losing him for longer.

Since joining the Orioles’ rotation in April of his rookie season, John Means has been its most consistent piece. His 23 starts of at least six innings account for nearly a third of Baltimore’s such performances over the past three years and are more than any other pair of starters combined.

That’s what made Saturday, when Means left after two outs with left shoulder fatigue, so frightening for the Orioles, even if Means clarified afterward that the injury in his deltoid muscle is more of an annoyance that he’s dealt with previously than a serious problem. Still, Means will miss at least one start after the Orioles placed him on the 10-day injured list with a left-shoulder strain Sunday morning after he underwent an MRI, which manager Brandon Hyde said after Sunday’s game revealed a strain “very, very similar to what he had in 2019,” when Means missed only a couple of starts. The team will shut him down for a week to 10 days and reevaluate.

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“With the couple off-days coming up, he leaves the game in the first inning with some tenderness in his shoulder, we’re gonna side with caution,” Hyde said Sunday morning.

After Saturday’s game, neither Means nor Hyde knew whether Means would make his next turn through the rotation, with days off Monday and Thursday enabling him to be skipped without altering the rotation otherwise. Instead, those days off could allow him to return after missing only one start, depending on the severity of the strain.

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Even though the Orioles’ other starters pitched well between Means’ previous start and Saturday — a 1.88 ERA in five outings — they averaged fewer than five innings per start in that time. On the season, removing Means and a one-inning opener appearance from Adam Plutko, Baltimore’s starters have averaged fewer than 3 ⅔ innings per start, a full inning less than any other team entering Saturday. Means averaged 6 ⅓ innings per outing before Saturday while ranking in the American League’s top three in ERA and WHIP. With no Means in the rotation, a bullpen already gasping for breath of late could find itself even deeper underwater. Left-hander Zac Lowther was recalled from Norfolk in a corresponding move, providing a length option in a bullpen that covered 8 ⅓ innings Saturday after Means’ early exit, though he was optioned back after allowing two runs in two innings Sunday.

Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said recently that the organization sees Means as its eventual No. 1 playoff starter. Even with this blip, he is trending toward his second All-Star Game appearance in as many full seasons. “John Means Day” has become a weekly holiday around the fanbase. Of the players who have already arrived in the majors, there aren’t many who could argue as being more important to the potential success of the franchise’s rebuild.

The Orioles know these things and have already handled Means’ usage with caution. Since he fired 113 pitches to no-hit the Seattle Mariners on May 5, he has made three of his five starts on extra rest, including Saturday’s. He did so twice before the no-hitter as well. Hyde has continually said he will provide Means with additional days of rest when possible; the club had rookie Keegan Akin pitch Friday on regular rest rather than have Means make his typical five-game turn, which already would’ve featured one extra day.

“I don’t have long-term concern,” Hyde said. “It is something that he dealt with to start the year last year after summer camp. Back in ’19 also, we shut him down for a couple weeks. I’m waiting to hear what the medical people say. That’s not my area of expertise, to be honest with you. I would love to try to keep him healthy. We pushed him back on occasion after the no-hitter, pushed him back a couple days. Pushed him back a day before this last start, so I’m just waiting to see.”

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Knowing the injury has been problematic for him in the past, Means said he’s “been trying to attack it this year,” noting that before Saturday, it’s tended to be a bigger problem as he recovers from a start rather than during one. Means said he’s dealt with this issue in recent years, as well, and thrice in his career has been on the injured list for arm-related issues, including once specifically for a left shoulder strain. After Saturday’s game, Means suggested that he intended to use the coming days to fully address the issue in hopes of preventing it from being a problem again.

“I’m going to try to just flush it out right now and attack maybe some weak areas that are there,” he said.

The Orioles will assuredly give him however much time it takes to do that. Even if it hurts their pitching staff in the short run, the most important aspect of the situation for both the organization and Means is his long-term health. The Orioles can’t afford to be without Means. They can’t risk losing him for longer.

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