One bad pitch.
That’s all it took. John Means threw perhaps the most dominant game of his career on this Saturday night in Buffalo, but one bad pitch — a hanging slider that Cavan Biggio tagged for a home run — ruined his flirtation with history. And that, combined with a typically dormant O’s offense plus bullpen and defensive meltdowns in the late innings — doomed the Birds to a 5-2 loss to the Blue Jays in the season’s penultimate game.
My goodness, though, was John Means excellent tonight. He was already on a roll entering the game, having tossed three straight starts allowing just one run each, but he upped the ante in his season finale. The Blue Jays’ bats simply couldn’t touch him. Means worked every corner of the strike zone, threw every pitch in his arsenal with pinpoint command, and dispatched one helpless hitter after another after another.
Means struck out Biggio, the first batter of the game, before walking ex-Oriole Jonathan Villar. I hope the Jays enjoyed that baserunner, because they didn’t get another one for the next five innings. Yes, Means proceeded to retire 16 consecutive Blue Jays batters, eight of them on strikeouts. He had them whiffing on his fastball. He had them chasing his curve. Means had ‘em eating out of his hand, and it was a thing of beauty.
It was maybe the fourth inning when I looked at the scoreboard and realized: wait a minute — he hasn’t given up a hit. If he could do that for the whole game, it’d be kind of a big deal! And as filthy as Means looked, this could have turned into a special night indeed. He got stronger as he went along, fanning the side in the fifth inning, then getting another K and a lineout to start the sixth. Means was 13 outs away from history, though his pitch count had escalated over 90, so there was almost no chance he’d be able to stay in for nine innings. Still, how long could he keep it going?
Not any longer, it turned out. Biggio turned on a 1-0 slider and deposited it over the right-center field wall. The Blue Jays’ first hit also gave them their first run, and Means’ dreams were dashed. He finished the sixth before departing, having tossed another gem to lower his final ERA for the season to 4.53. What a spectacular turnaround for a guy who had an 8.10 ERA at the beginning of this month.
Sadly, Means’ effort wasn’t rewarded. The Orioles’ offense, as has become an off-putting tradition this month, struggled again, even after the Blue Jays scratched scheduled starter Matt Shoemaker and replaced him with rookie T.J. Zeuch. His name is pronounced “zoik,” and every time I read it I hear it in the voice of Shaggy from Scooby-Doo.
Zeuch! (See, that’s in your head now, isn’t it?)
The Birds didn’t lack for scoring opportunities, but couldn’t get the big hit when they needed it. In the first, a Jose Iglesias double put a man in scoring position with one out, but Zeuch! set down Ryan Mountcastle and DJ Stewart.
Two innings later, the O’s had baserunners all over the place, yet nothing came of it. With two on and one out, Iglesias hit a grounder to third and seemingly had a hit when the throw to first pulled Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s foot off the bag. But the Blue Jays challenged, and Chad Fairchild’s ruling was overturned (his second overturned call of that inning), though I didn’t see any particularly compelling evidence that Guerrero kept his foot on the base. Regardless, Iglesias was now out, and the two other runners were then stranded on a Mountcastle first-pitch grounder.
In the fourth, Rio Ruiz crushed a shot to deep center field that missed a home run by maybe an inch, instead bouncing off the very top of the wall and back into play for a double. You’ll never guess: he was left stranded. Hanser Alberto lined out to center for the final out, making the Orioles 0-for-5 with men in scoring position.
Zeuch! ended up tossing five shutout innings, the first scoreless outing he’s ever had in his eight big league appearances. Veteran righty Chase Anderson replaced him and was even more dominant, striking out the side in the sixth inning and another in the seventh.
Hunter Harvey worked the seventh for the Birds and he was done in by a familiar O’s antagonist. Harvey began the inning by plunking Teoscar Hernandez, and then second baseman Ramon Urias fumbled a short-hop bouncer to put two aboard with none out.
That brought up (sigh) Randal Grichuk. Randal Grichuk the Oriole Destroyer. Randal Grichuk the Unstoppable. Randal Grichuk the Guy Who Wasn’t Even Supposed to Be Playing in This Game but Had to Replace the Injured Lourdes Gurriel Jr. in the Fifth. (That last nickname is a little wordy, I’ll admit. But accurate.) Yes, even on a night when the O’s thought they’d finally be free and clear of their archnemesis, circumstances aligned for Grichuk to once again humiliate the Birds.
Grichuk jumped on a first-pitch fastball and lofted it to deep right field, just sneaking over the wall next to the foul pole for a three-run homer. Ugh, are you kidding me?? Again with this guy? Grichuk now has a mind-boggling seven home runs and 18 RBIs in nine games against the Orioles this year, and 14 homers and 33 RBIs in the last two seasons. Even Gleyber Torres is jealous of that kind of dominance against the Orioles. Anyway, that gave the Jays a 4-0 lead.
It’s too bad Harvey gave up all those insurance runs, because the O’s offense finally showed signs of life in the eighth. Austin Hays led off with an infield single, and Iglesias lashed a double to the wall to plate the Birds’ first run. Mountcastle, too, smacked a shot to the wall in right, but Hernandez pulled off a spectacular defensive play by unleashing a cannon throw to second to throw out Ryan trying to stretch a double. Iglesias came home on the play, but now the bases were empty, and the Orioles didn’t score again that inning.
The Jays got one run back in the eighth, an inning that featured Tanner Scott throwing wildly to home plate on a comebacker to allow a run to score, and later Villar stealing third on the throw back from the catcher to the pitcher, catching the Orioles napping. It’s been a long year, folks. Even for a short year, it’s been a long year.
The O’s went down 1-2-3 in the ninth against closer Anthony Bass, wrapping up their latest defeat. But hey — silver lining, folks! Tonight’s loss moved the Orioles up a few slots in the 2021 draft order, assuming it will be based on teams’ 2020 final records. At 24-35 with one game left, the O’s are now guaranteed to slot ahead of the Royals, Mariners, Rockies, and Nationals, moving them up to, at worst, the No. 6 draft pick. They could potentially climb as high as No. 3 when all is said and done (they can’t catch the Rangers for No. 2, and the Pirates have already clinched the top pick).
We’ll take our victories where we can get them, okay?