Is it possible we’ve just witnessed the low point of the Orioles’ 2020 season? Swept in four games by the Yankees in the Bronx, the Birds took their unlikely playoff hopes and squandered them, their offense sinking into a deep freeze while their starters pitched to a 7.08 ERA in the last three games.
If you’ve been an Orioles fan for the last four seasons, you’ve probably had to learn to make do with silver linings, so here’s one: except for a few wobbly at-bats and one solo home run, John Means dominated the Yankees today. He’s had a strangely terrible 2020, but this was the John Means the Orioles have been looking for all season. Today, Means tested and proved the proposition that pitch tunneling and mixing speeds can get you swings-and-misses: a series of changeups that looked like fastballs and vice versa drew weak contact and K’s, the fastball had location and velocity, and he was able to mix in the curveball for strikes a fair bit.
The Orioles got their “big blow” in the second, a shot off the bat of Renato Núñez that, in 99% of ballparks, would die as a pop fly to right. But miraculously, that thing kept sailing and landed just past the 330-foot fence in right. Last season’s Stevie Wilkerson would have caught the little squeaker. This time, it was a full-grown home run. 1-0 O’s.
But the rest, as they say, was silence.
I hope you could at least derive pleasure, though, from Yankees making outs. There were a lot of them this game. Means dominated the Yankees in a quick first and second. Unfortunately, they touched him up for a big run in the third when Tyler Wade hammed Means’ first slider—a high, hanging one—into right to tie things up. Means went back to the fastball and caught Lemahieu staring at one low in the zone, then got Luke Voit to fly out to center.
In the fourth, Means’ fastball command got him into hot water, but he escaped damage. With one out, Means allowed two consecutive singles, threw a wild pitch, and gave up a walk to load the bases with one out. Then, with Yankees catcher Higashioka at the plate, Means reared up for a 95-mph heater, then threw a second heater to get a popup behind the plate. Thairo Estrada bit on the first pitch he saw, flying out to leave the bases loaded.
A threatened Orioles rally in the fifth ended with a whimper. It turned out to be a huge missed opportunity. Pat Valaika hit a ball down the third-base line that ricocheted off the bag. That’s a double, ladies and gentlemen! Rio Ruiz followed with a ringing single to move Valaika over to third. But on a Mullins grounder to third, Valaika broke for home and got caught in a rundown. Ugh. Then, as Hanser whiffed on a 3-2 slider, Rio Ruiz tried to steal third and got thrown out to end the inning. Not the way to turn runners into runs…
At least Means was still mixing up Yankees hitters. He got Tyler Wade swinging through a fastball, then drew a groundball out that Pat the Bat fielded and threw cleanly (he’s not in there for his defense, but we’ll take it!). Luke Voit swung ferociously through a first-pitch fastball, fouled off another, then stared at a third high and on the corner to end the fifth.
Then, more wizardry in the sixth. With his pitch count at 79, Means came back out and continued to flummox Yankees with velo changes. Hicks flew out on an 85-mph slider, Frazier grounded out on a changeup, and Gary Sánchez flew out on a fastball.
Meanwhile, the Yankees had pulled J.A. Happ after the fifth for sinkerballer Adam Ottavino. After getting two quick outs on a steady diet of sliders (why throw anything else if the other team can’t hit the one pitch?), Pedro Severino made Ottavino work, drawing an 11-pitch walk. Noonie singled to right. The Yankees, mildly alarmed, brought in Jonathan Holder and DJ Stewart popped out harmlessly.
In to pitch the seventh was Dillon Tate. He was a little wild, but his stuff is no joke. Mike Ford lined out to second, then Estrada grounded out on a 98-mph fastball high in the zone. The third batter of the inning, Tyler Wade cued a ball into short center field that a sprinting, diving, and full-extending Cedric Mullins hauled in. It was the defensive play of the game.
Zack Britton coming in for the Yankees in the 8th didn’t seem like an auspicious sign for the bats. (Narrator: It wasn’t.) As expected, Britton drew two quick groundouts before Ryan Mountcastle golfed one right into defensive replacement Cedric Garner’s glove.
Tate was still rolling in the eighth, but things unraveled for him thanks to some crappy defense and some crappy luck. With two outs, Aaron Hicks hit a seeing-eye single the opposite way. Frazier hit a ground ball right at Núñez, who bobbled it. The Orioles still had a chance to get the out, but Tate, trying to cover first, failed to step on the bag. The inning should have been over, but it wasn’t.
With two Yankees aboard, Brandon Hyde lifted Tate for Tanner Scott. Sadly, New York won this battle of wits: Yankees manager Aaron Boone pinch-hit Gleyber Torres in return. You know of this Gleyber Torres guy, right? Torres the Slayer of Orioles sliced a ball deep into the gap, scoring two runs. The way this offense had been looking, and with Aroldis Chapman coming in to pitch the ninth, it wouldn’t have been smart money to bet on a comeback.
None was in the works: the Orioles bats were determined to make this a quick one, and this game and series ended quietly, without much of a fight.