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Orioles name All-Star left-hander John Means as Opening Day starter

For the third straight year, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde got to deliver John Means good news about how he’ll spend Opening Day.

Hyde announced Friday that Means will be the Orioles’ Opening Day starter April 1 at Boston’s Fenway Park. Means, the left-hander who was Baltimore’s lone All-Star representative in 2019, will look to build on his strong finish to 2020, in which he struck out 30 batters over 23 2/3 innings and allowed no more than one run in each of his final four starts.

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He was supposed to start Opening Day last season, as well, but a tired arm prevented him from making that appearance. It was part of Means’ slow beginning to the campaign, one that followed a 2019 season in which he was a surprise All-Star and finished second in American League Rookie of the Year voting.

“He told me he was going to make it this time, so we’re keeping our fingers crossed, obviously,” Hyde said. “He was very happy to hear the news from me, and that’s always a special moment as a manager. It’s always a special moment to give great news to players, and that’s something that guys hold dear, to be able to make an Opening Day start is something that he can say he did for the rest of his life.”

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Through his first six starts of 2020, Means, 27, showed increased velocity but had an 8.10 ERA while averaging fewer than four innings per start, needing to build his stamina again after being away from the team following the death of his father, Alan. But a “tough talk” from Hyde preceded the dominant four-start finish that salvaged his sophomore season and allowed him to carry momentum into next month’s season opener.

“Everything he dealt with last year, he is a high character guy, and we felt for him,” Hyde said. “He has definitely earned it.”

Means has limited opponents to one run over four innings in his past two spring starts and should get two more before facing the Red Sox. He said after his most recent outing Wednesday he feels “really good” and hopes to work his breaking balls in more in his final tuneup starts.

“I think my body’s recovering well, my arm feels good,” Means said. “Everything’s working for the most part.”

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Means made the Orioles’ Opening Day roster in 2019 as a reliever, viewing himself as the last player to make the cut. Hyde said Wednesday that Means’ presence was largely the result of the club’s need for arms that could provide length, with a late-spring start against the New York Yankees positioning him to be in New York as a member of the Opening Day bullpen. From there, he pitched his way into Baltimore’s rotation and, eventually, the All-Star game, posting a 2.50 ERA through the season’s first half.

He spent last spring training mostly working on backfields as the Orioles tried to keep him from pitching in exhibitions against American League East opponents he would see early in the regular season. When the coronavirus pandemic halted spring, Means spent the shutdown boosting his velocity by throwing into a mattress, but it didn’t lead to immediate results once the season arrived.

In 2019, he averaged 91.7 mph with his fastball, according to MLB’s Statcast metrics, while a changeup he honed with Chris Holt, then the Orioles’ minor league pitching coordinator and now their major league pitching coach and director of pitching, limited batters to a .207 average. But he allowed a .686 slugging percentage with that pitch through his first six starts of 2020, throwing it and his fastball more than 3 mph harder than he did in 2020.

The talk with Hyde allowed him to stop what the manager called “pitching out of frustration.” In Means’ final four starts, he ticked down his velocity, opponents slugged only .125 against his changeup, and the only runs he allowed came on four solo home runs.

“He’s really turning into a true starter with a four-pitch mix now,” Hyde said. “The changeup was something that he struggled finding last year, kind of found it late. He’s been throwing it well this year, and he’s been locating his fastball, so those are the ingredients for John.

“He has come a long way.”

Catcher Chance Sisco was drafted a year before Means, and the two were first with an Orioles affiliate together in 2016 with Double-A Bowie, when Sisco was a top prospect and Means was, as Hyde put it, “an organizational-type player.” Means returned to the level each of the next two years, contemplating retirement. The pitcher Sisco worked with then is not the same Means.

“Those few years in the minor leagues that I did catch him, you could always tell that he had good stuff, but a couple years ago, he took that leap,” Sisco said. “The velo obviously jumped, which made such a huge difference from his fastball and his changeup that that’s kind of taken him to that next step. He’s obviously grown on that and become a really, really good pitcher in this league. He’s continually trying to build and make his stuff better, and he’s doing that.”

Around the horn

>> Félix Hernández (right elbow discomfort) is “feeling a little bit better,” Hyde said, but will miss his next start.

>> Left-hander Bruce Zimmermann pitched five innings in a B game Friday. The Loyola Blakefield product remains a candidate to make the Orioles’ Opening Day roster as a starter or reliever, with Hyde comparing his spring to Means’ in 2019.

>> Infielder Richie Martin (broken left hamate) also played in the B game and could appear in a Grapefruit League game this weekend, Hyde said.

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