John Means returned to the Orioles on Tuesday. Well, kind of.
The man was back on the mound in Tampa Bay. But the resulting performance showed that Means still has some work to do before he’s back to form.
Means, making his return from a sore shoulder that had sidelined him since the start of June, looked rusty while struggling early in what became a 9-3 loss for the Orioles to the Rays, evening up their series after Baltimore took the opener.
Means went five innings and allowed five runs, all earned, but it wasn’t just a collection of bad bounces and bloop hits, though there were some of those too. The Rays were well-attuned to what Means was going to be throwing them, consistently barreling up balls and taking advantage as the left-hander’s location fell short of what he had been demonstrating prior to his injury.
It started in the first, with Randy Arozarena beginning the inning with a double into left field. Vidal Brujan followed with a soft single to left, allowing Arozarena to score, and Austin Meadows hit a deep fly to center that Cedric Mullins made a nice running catch on, though his throw back in missed the cut-off man, sending Brujan to third. Wander Franco then lined to right for a sacrifice fly, scoring Brujan to make it 2-0, and Brandon Lowe hit a double off the center field wall but was stranded before the Rays could inflict any more damage.
Throughout the inning, it wasn’t the sharp, paint-the-black Means we saw in April and May. Arozarena’s double came on a changeup that floated up in the zone rather than dropping down, and Lowe’s double came on a fastball that Pedro Severino wanted down, but Means instead let drift into the top of the zone.
The trend continued in the third, with the Orioles down 2-1. Severino called for a fastball on the inside black to the right-handed hitting Arozarena, but Means instead caught too much of the plate, and Arozarena hit it 418 feet for a home run and a 3-1 Tampa Bay lead.
In the fourth, Lowe led off with a single to center, and Means tried to throw a down-and-away changeup to backup catcher Francisco Mejia that wasn’t away enough and not down at all. Mejia crushed it to left for a two-run homer, part of a five RBI night, and the Orioles were down 5-1.
That was all the damage Means sustained, and there was nothing all that concerning or problematic going on: he was just rusty, and it showed. Plenty of pitchers take some time to hit their stride again after their returns, and while rehab starts help shorten that adjustment period, they don’t do away with it. It was weird to see Means struggle, though, in the areas where he had been so good.
Even with their ace having a tough go of it, the Orioles hitters flirted with a comeback, but were denied the big hit that could have changed the game’s direction and fortunes. In the second, Anthony Santander had a two-out double and went to third on a passed ball, and Severino singled him in to make it 2-1. Baltimore threatened for even more, with Pat Valaika drawing a walk and Kelvin Gutierrez getting hit by a pitch, but Mullins whiffed on a high fastball to leave the bases loaded and cut the rally down.
In the third, Austin Hays reached on an error and Trey Mancini singled to right, but Ryan Mountcastle struck out and Santander grounded into a double play to end the threat. In the fourth, Ramon Urias reached on an error and went to second on a passed ball, but Severino and Valaika struck out and Gutierrez flew to the warning track in right.
In the eighth, with Tampa Bay up 5-1, the Orioles found some late life. Hays chopped to third and got two bases out of a wild throw by Franco, and after Mancini flew out, Mountcastle’s harmless fly ball to right was dropped by Lowe, bringing home Hays. Santander followed with a double off the wall in right center field that scored Mountcastle, narrowing the gap to 5-3, but after a Urias walk, Tampa Bay called in righthander Pete Fairbanks to escape the jam. That’s exactly what he did, getting Severino and then pinch-hitter D.J. Stewart looking at a 3-2 breaking ball to preserve the two-run lead.
The Rays put the game out of reach in the eighth, loading the bases against Shaun Anderson. Mejia (him again) hit a line drive into the gap that was just feet, maybe inches, from being within reach of a sprinting, diving Mullins. Instead, it fell for a bases-loaded triple, and Ji-Man Choi ended up singling in Mejia for the final 9-3 margin.
Aside from Santander’s two-hit game and two scoreless innings from Cesar Valdez, there weren’t many bright spots for the Birds. Means didn’t have it tonight, but he’ll be back on the mound soon enough. Hopefully when he is, he’ll be back to showing the same combination of movement and location that got him through an excellent April and May.