When John Means last took the mound, the All-Star left-hander mired in a star-crossed summer said that he had never pitched worse in his life.
His struggles got to the point that manager Brandon Hyde called him into his office last week for what Means described as a “tough talk,” one that was enough to pull him out of his decline and have him feeling like himself for the first time all summer.
In the Orioles' emphatic, 11-2 win over the New York Mets on Tuesday night at Citi Field, no such frustration or criticism was warranted. Means was another bright spot in a four-game winning streak for an Orioles team which, at 20-21, has breathed life into its playoff chances since the beginning of September.
Means completed six innings for the first time this season and did so allowing just three hits and a run on a solo homer by center fielder Jake Marisnick in the second inning. He walked one and struck out five, regaining some of the fastball command that helps his signature changeup be effective while also featuring his breaking ball more often than he has all season.
In many ways, it was the kind of performance that made Means a surprising but deserving All-Star in 2019. Hyde called him in for the meeting because that pitcher simply wasn’t the one he was seeing anymore.
Means was no longer a rookie of whom little was expected, but a possible foundational piece and the unquestioned top pitcher in the Orioles' rotation entering the season. Those expectations, plus some more added velocity on his fastball, made for an entirely different Means in 2020.
Arm soreness that caused him to miss his Opening Day start, plus over a week away from the team to be with his family after the death of his father, Alan, hasn’t helped Means find any consistency on the mound either. Hyde said that he was “very sensitive” to what Means has gone through, but that honesty prevailed.
“I felt we had a nice conversation about what he did and really did well last year, who he is, what kind of pitcher he is, kind of going back to some things that he did very, very well last year,” Hyde said. "For me, that’s a major league starter in this league for a long time, and I felt like he was getting away from that a little bit.
“I also wanted to see the poise on the mound that he showed last year. I just thought he looked really discouraged a lot. I didn’t like his mound presence. I didn’t like his demeanor on the mound. I felt like he was pitching out of frustration instead of pitching to win and being competitive and going to the next pitch and moving on, those types of things that he did very well last year. I just wanted to remind him of that.”
Means said all it took was a “slight mentality change” that allowed him to be more relaxed.
“I was trying to force a lot of things, trying to get strikeouts, trying to blow it by everybody,” Means said. “That’s just not how I pitch. That’s not me. [Hyde] told me that this isn’t me. This isn’t how I pitch. This isn’t who I should be. I was getting frustrated, I was getting upset and angry with myself, and to be able to relax out there and just be myself, it really helped me.”
The resulting outing lowered Means' ERA from 8.10 to 6.58 and meant he didn’t need any of the run support the Orioles' resurgent offense gave him.
But the big innings while Means watched certainly helped. DJ Stewart, who has taken over as the everyday right fielder with Anthony Santander on the injured list, hit his fourth home run in three games with a two-run blast into Citi Field’s upper deck in the second inning.
Marisnick’s home run halved that lead in bottom half, but rookie Ryan Mountcastle’s fourth home run of the season made it 4-1 a half-inning later.
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Rio Ruiz’s three-run home run in the fourth inning helped break the game open even further, and Pat Valaika added a solo homer in the eighth. Cedric Mullins led the way with three hits, including an RBI triple, while José Iglesias, Pedro Severino, Valaika and Ruiz added two hits apiece.
Tuesday’s win, coupled with a loss by the New York Yankees, pulled the Orioles within a half-game of the crumbling Yankees for the last American League playoff spot. The Orioles face the Mets on Wednesday before a critical four-game series at the Yankees.
Run, then trot
On two of the Orioles' home runs, hustle plays that preceded them helped put runs on the board. Renato Núñez is dealing with a hamstring issue, but he beat out a double-play turn in the third inning. Had he not, Severino’s pop-up as the next batter would have ended the inning. Instead, Núñez was on first and Mountcastle got the chance to come to the plate and drive him in with a home run.
Similarly, Valaika beat out an infield single with two outs in the fifth to drive in a run and extend the inning. Ruiz was the next batter and hit his eighth home run of the season on a 3-2 pitch.
“We believe in getting down the line,” Hyde said. “We’re playing really hurt too, and give our guys a lot of credit. We’ve got a lot of nagging injuries, nagging things going on in our clubhouse right now. And our guys are continuing to push, continuing to play the game the right way.”
Wojo working out of the ’pen
Travis Lakins Sr. pitched a scoreless seventh inning before giving way to Asher Wojciechowski, who made his first relief appearance of the season after losing his rotation spot to rookie Dean Kremer.
Wojciechowski allowed a solo home run in the eighth inning before pitching a scoreless ninth.