Since permanently joining the Orioles’ rotation in late April, left-hander John Means has pitched like an All-Star. On Wednesday night, with that title formally bestowed upon him, he lived up to it.
And in the top of the ninth inning at Tropicana Field, his teammates looked the part, too. After another dominant outing from Means, the Orioles struck for six runs in the top of the ninth against Tampa Bay Rays closer Jose Alvarado in a 9-6 victory to salvage the finale of the three-game set.
“I thought we played the game pretty well, especially that ninth inning,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “We did a lot of things really, really well, things that we’ve talked a lot of about. The bunt, the contact reads, the patience at the plate against a tough closer that was struggling with his command. We just did a lot of good things well.”
After some chiding from teammates over his recent starts lasting only five innings, Means matched his career high with seven innings, allowing two earned runs, striking out five and walking none. Named Sunday as the Orioles’ representative in next week’s All-Star Game in Cleveland, Means, a 26-year-old rookie, concluded his first half with a 2.50 ERA, the second lowest among American League pitchers with at least 80 innings pitched.
“Over the last few starts, I’ve gathered some nicknames along the way — ‘Five and Die,’ ‘Snorkel,’ that sort of deal,” Means said. “I was trying to put an end to that.”
He was left with a no-decision, exiting in a 3-3 tie. Mychal Givens pitched a scoreless eighth, diving to tag Tampa Bay’s Kevin Kiermaier to keep him from scoring the go-ahead run and enduring an injury scare on the play. Richard Bleier replaced him for the ninth, allowing three runs before Shawn Armstrong entered to get the final out.
“I knew we had it the whole time,” Means said. “I know it got a little sticky at the end. But I knew with our pitchers, we’d pull it out.”
The Orioles scored their first run of the ninth without a hit, as pinch-hitter Anthony Santander walked and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Rio Ruiz, who hit a three-run homer in the fourth for his first longball since May 16. Santander went to third on a wild pitch and beat out a throw home on Pedro Severino’s grounder to shortstop with the infield in.
Jonathan Villar followed with an RBI triple, then came home when catcher Mike Zunino couldn’t hold onto another throw from short. Catcher Chance Sisco’s infield single preceded Renato Núñez’s three-run home run to break it open, his team-leading 19th.
Entering play with the third-worst batting average in baseball on pitches 95 mph and over at .210, the Orioles’ went 3-for-6 against Alvarado’s heat in the ninth. Their six runs in the inning were a third of the 18 they had scored in the ninth in their first 85 games combined.
“He’s one of the nastiest guys in the league,” Ruiz said. “It’s definitely gonna be a happy flight.”
As well as the game ended for the Orioles, it began strongly, too. Means retired the first seven Rays before Joey Wendle’s clean single up the middle disrupted his perfect start. After Guillermo Heredia followed with a bloop single, Travis d’Arnaud hit a grounder to Ruiz at third. Ruiz’s first instinct was to head toward third base for a forceout, but he decided to instead throw across his body toward second base. The ball took a bounce second baseman Hanser Alberto couldn’t corral, and Wendle trotted home. Means retired the next two batters before Ruiz’s homer provided a lead.
The Rays got a run back on Mike Brosseau’s first major-league home run, as he took a Means changeup away and managed to send it over the left-field fence. They nearly tied it in the fifth, when Heredia doubled and a Villar error put runners on the corners. When Tommy Pham took off for second, Sisco faked a throw to second, prompting Heredia to break for home. After a brief pickle, Means tagged him out a few feet from home.
The lead couldn’t hold in the sixth, an inning that proved problematic for the Orioles throughout the series. Yandy Diaz doubled off Means and scored on Avisail Garcia’s single. Garcia was caught at second as the Orioles executed a cutoff play that has been rare for them in a season of fundamental struggles, then Means retired the final five Rays he faced.
Nicknames aside, Means ended his first half by pitching at least five innings in 13 straight starts. In his past 10 starts, he has a 2.37 ERA, allowing no more than two earned runs in any of those outings. His next appearance will come in the All-Star Game.
“I think going into the year he was kind of feeling his way through a little bit, even though he’s pitching well,” Hyde said. “There’s just a presence now that he has on the mound.
“I just see confidence growing with him.”