John Means considered himself the recipient of the Orioles’ final Opening Day roster spot in 2019, having contemplated retirement the year before when he was in Double-A for the third straight season. An unexpected debut that September showed him how much work he had to do, and an offseason spent rebuilding himself allowed him to pitch his way into the Orioles’ rotation and, eventually, the All-Star Game.
Never a highly regarded top prospect, he turned himself into Baltimore’s ace.
On Wednesday, the 28-year-old left-hander became something more. In a 6-0 victory over the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park, Means pitched the Orioles’ first solo no-hitter since Jim Palmer shut down the Oakland Athletics in 1969.
“To be in the same breath as Palmer, I don’t think you can do much better than that,” Means said. “I hope it lets everybody, every kid coming up knowing that everybody can do it. I was on my way out in the minor leagues and figured out a way to make a living out of this. Hopefully, kids coming up, even the ones overlooked, know they have a chance.”
Baltimore had not held an opponent hitless since 1991, when Bob Milacki, Mike Flanagan, Mark Williamson and Gregg Olson combined to do so, also against Oakland. It’s the sixth no-hitter in Orioles history and perhaps the franchise’s most dominant pitching performance as Means struck out 12 and consistently induced soft contact.
“I was never that kid who had a ton of confidence in myself being able to get to this point. I never really thought I’d be here,” Means said. “I’d always write ‘MLB player’ as a kid on the sheet when they asked what you were going to do when you were older, but I never thought it was a reality.
“Now that it is and now that I’ve been through all this, I don’t even know how to describe it. I don’t know how to put it into words.”
All that kept Means from Baltimore’s first perfect game and the 24th in MLB history was Sam Haggerty reaching on a third-strike curveball that bounced underneath catcher Pedro Severino with one out in third inning, but Severino erased Haggerty trying to steal second as Means faced the minimum number of batters. He lowered his ERA through seven starts to 1.37, the third-lowest mark in baseball, with an outing that marked the first no-hitter in which the only runner reached base on a dropped third strike. Means is one of only eight pitchers to strike out 12 and walk none in a nine-inning no-hitter, a group that also includes Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer.
As Means took the mound for the ninth, he looked at his glove and saw his father’s initials. Alan Means began his shifts at a Kansas City-area trucking company at midnight so he could take a young Means to baseball practice in the afternoons. Alan died last year of pancreatic cancer, and as Means thought of his father, it relieved some of the building pressure.
“I said to myself, ‘He wouldn’t care. He’s just glad that I’m having a good time,’” Means said. “The accolades and all that never mattered to him. But it was pretty special, and I know he would be proud.”
Alan and Means’ mother, Jill, had driven to Cleveland in 2019 to see Means at the All-Star Game. He made it there with a 2.50 first-half ERA and later finished second in American League Rookie of the Year voting.
He was supposed to be Baltimore’s Opening Day starter in the coronavirus-delayed 2020 season, but a bout of arm soreness delayed the debut of his increased velocity. But that spike did not come with results. Amid spending time away from the team after Alan’s death, Means had an 8.10 ERA through six starts.
Orioles manager Brandon Hyde told him he wasn’t seeing the same pitcher he had in 2019, that he thought Means was pitching angrily. In his final four starts, Means allowed four runs, all on solo home runs, across 23 ⅔ innings. With Wednesday’s no-hitter, he has allowed one run or fewer in nine of his past 11 starts.
“You don’t want to label somebody [an ace], honestly,” Hyde said. “I don’t want to raise expectations of who he is, but he is definitely pitching like one. There’s no doubt about that.
“You go to the ballpark, Meansy’s on the mound, it’s going to be a fun night.”
One of the exceptions was an April 13 start against the Mariners, where they struck for three runs off two homers. He allowed them hardly any hard contact this time around, with only one ball put in play at harder than 95 mph. It was a popout.
The changeup that has been the backbone of his breakout carried the day. Means got 14 swings-and-misses with the pitch among his career-high 26 total. He pitched from ahead throughout the afternoon, throwing first-pitch strikes to the first 17 Mariners. When he finally fell behind 1-0, J.P. Crawford nearly spoiled the feat, but a sliding catch from center fielder Cedric Mullins got him through the sixth.
“We ran up against a really hot pitcher,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “Means is probably numbers-wise, ERA-wise, the top pitcher in our league, and we saw it today. Absolutely dominated the zone.”
It was around then Means realized he hadn’t allowed a hit, with the Seattle fans consistently letting him know it in an effort to jinx it. Means said he tried “to talk to as many people as I could, trying to laugh and joke and stay as loose as I possibly can” in the dugout, an atypical approach amid a no-hitter.
Having already staked Means to an early 2-0 lead, the Orioles’ offense then added on. Pat Valaika improved to 7-for-12 on the road trip with his first home run in the seventh, and Trey Mancini broke the game open with a three-run shot in the eighth, giving Means a six-run lead as he approached the final six outs.
When Means took the mound in the eighth, it was the first time he had done so as a major league starter. Kyle Lewis’ deep drive to open the frame, caught at the wall by left fielder Austin Hays, gave Means a career-high 7 ⅓ innings.
“I thought it was gone off the bat, for sure,” Means said. “If this was Camden Yards, it was gone. I’m glad we’re in Seattle.”
He struck out Tom Murphy and Evan White to finish the eighth, letting out a rare bit of on-mound emotion with a fist pump. That told him he was “feeling a little bit of butterflies.” He said he had “jello legs” when he started the ninth, but his first pitch of the frame, his 102nd overall, settled him down.
The first out came when Dylan Moore popped out in foul territory to third baseman Rio Ruiz, who Hyde had called on as a defensive replacement for the final three outs. Hyde was on the Chicago Cubs’ coaching staff and responsible for outfield positioning in two Jake Arrieta no-hitters, recalling how nervous he was that a ball would fall in front of where he had placed players in the late innings. Those nerves came back Wednesday.
“My stomach was turning from the eighth on,” he said.
Means settled him down. He reached a dozen strikeouts by getting Haggerty swinging again. On the next pitch, Means’ 113th, Crawford lined out to shortstop Ramón Urías.
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Mancini, serving as the designated hitter, was the first out of the dugout and nearly beat Severino to meet Means near the mound. Severino said his mind so quickly shifted to the plan for the batter on deck that he hadn’t even realized the lineout represented the 27th out until the outpouring began.
“I just told the umpire, ‘Good job,’ and I started running and celebrating with my teammates,” Severino said.
Urías flipped the ball to Hyde, who kept it safe until he offered it to Means in the clubhouse after the game. The pitcher temporarily declined, having been doused by his teammates in the revelry.
“Our clubhouse after the game, it was like we clinched a playoff spot,” Hyde said. “It was just so cool with how everybody loved him. What an incredible afternoon.”
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