With each outing, the small sample size encapsulating John Means’ hot start to the Orioles’ 2019 season becomes larger, and with it the possibility that it is not only sustainable, but perhaps a baseline of growth to come.
Means continued his upstart beginning to his rookie campaign with seven innings of one-run ball in Monday night’s 4-1 victory over the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards. Once viewed as a borderline member of the roster, Means has been the club’s best starting pitcher and has continually performed as one worthy of that title.
“He's still developing,” manager Brandon Hyde said, “which is cool and impressive and what we're looking for from our young players, is to not only have results but to improve over the course of the year.”
Means, 26, will take a 2.48 ERA into his next turn in the rotation, nearly a full point lower than his mark at the end of any regular season in his minor league career. This Means is a different pitcher, one who accurately spots his fastball and pairs it with a plus changeup. Monday, he brought two breaking pitches, a slider and a curve, more into the mix. After working his way through the Orioles’ bullpen to the rotation, Means has continued to outperform the pitcher he once was.
“I just feel comfortable up here,” Means said. “I feel like these games really matter. I was never a prospect, so I feel like my back is against the wall every time I go out there. And I feel like I pitch better that way.”
After the Orioles received only one start of at least seven innings through 33 games, Means supplied their second straight, going beyond five frames for the first time in his major league career while holding the reigning World Series champions to one hit over the final 16 batters he faced.
Means’ success was best evidenced in his ability to neutralize the top half of Boston’s lineup, limiting the first five Red Sox to a collective 0-for-15. That included an 0-for-9 from Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez; Means retired them in order in the first, capping the frame with a three-pitch strikeout of Martinez by getting the slugger to chase an elevated fastball.
Means allowed his first hit with two outs in the second when Christian Vázquez chased a high-and-away changeup and looped it into right field. The inning ended when former Oriole Steve Pearce hit a soft chopper toward first base, where Chris Davis fielded the ball and flung it across his body to Means as the pitcher beat Pearce in a race to the bag.
Backed by Jonathan Villar’s second-inning grand slam, the Orioles’ first of the season, Means pitched around Eduardo Núñez’s leadoff single in the third with the benefit of two fielder’s choice groundouts from Betts and Bogaerts.
Means threw 21 sliders among his career-high 96 pitches; he hadn’t thrown more than 10 sliders in any previous outing.
"I’m going to need that as I go forward,” Means said. “The first month, the changeup kind of surprised everybody. As I move forward, as I establish myself, I’m going to need the breaker and the slider more."
His changeup, though, remained a weapon. The Red Sox put 13 of them in play, with two going for singles and no damage on the others.
“That's unbelievable, that guy,” Villar said. “He throws to the right location and doesn't miss it all the time. He throws the fastball good, and the changeups are unbelievable.”
The only nick of Means’ outing came in the fifth, when Vazquez doubled, advanced to third on a fly ball from Pearce and scored on Núñez’s sacrifice fly. He recovered to strike out Jackie Bradley Jr. to complete five innings for the fourth straight start.
By doing so on 64 pitches, his efficiency allowed him to finally surpass that barrier. He returned for the sixth and again sat down Betts, Bogaerts and Martinez. He cruised through Michael Chavis and Rafael Devers for the first two outs of the seventh before another battle with Vázquez ensued. Means won it on nine pitches, with the groundout to short lowering his ERA against American League East opponents to 1.37.
“Honestly, I was just happy to get past five innings,” Means said. “That'd been my cap, it feels like, over the last few starts. To get past five innings, to get to seven, I felt like a starter again.”
Hyde called in left-hander Paul Fry for the eighth. With two outs and a runner on second, Fry yielded to Mychal Givens, who continued where Means left off against Betts by striking him out to end the inning.
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Facing Boston’s 2-3-4 hitters in the ninth, Givens retired them in order as Boston’s top five hitters finished 0-for-19. The victory was Orioles’ third in five games against the Red Sox, as many as they earned in 19 matchups last season.