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John Means’s season started later and ended earlier than hoped

A back strain delayed the lefty’s return from Tommy John, and elbow soreness kept him off the playoff roster after just four regular season starts.

Baltimore Orioles v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

In a perfect world, John Means — the Orioles’ unexpected ace of the 2019-2021 seasons, and the most exciting pitcher on some miserable O’s staffs — would have been front and center in the Birds’ breakthrough into contention these last two years.

When the club began to turn the corner in 2022 and played meaningful games in September, their Opening Day starter should have headlined the rotation down the stretch. It didn’t work out that way. Means made just two starts that season, exiting his April 13 outing with an elbow injury that ultimately required Tommy John reconstructive surgery. His season was over barely before it began, and the lefty who’d suffered through years of uncompetitive O’s baseball didn’t get to bask in their return to relevance.

The 2023 season was supposed to be Means’s second chance at playing a prominent role for a winning O’s club. He and the team targeted a midseason return from his Tommy John rehab, and it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that he’d be back before the All-Star break. Again, it didn’t work out that way. In late May, the Orioles announced that Means suffered a left teres major strain in his back during non-throwing drills, an injury that set back his progress for weeks.

And so he waited. And waited. All the while, the Orioles were running roughshod through the 2023 campaign, establishing themselves as the American League’s best team. A postseason berth was all but assured, but as October inched closer, the O’s starting rotation was in need of an upgrade after the Jack Flaherty trade acquisition flamed out. Means, if he could return to the Orioles healthy and strong in September, was thought to be the missing piece who could fill out a four-man rotation in the Division Series.

But — and stop me if you’ve heard this before — it didn’t work out that way.

Means did finally make his much-anticipated return to the Birds, debuting Sept. 12 and making four September starts. But when the ALDS roster was released, Means wasn’t on it. Manager Brandon Hyde announced that Means was sidelined by elbow soreness that he suffered in a sim game, though he insisted that the southpaw would be ready for the ALCS. The O’s, as we know, never gave him that chance, getting swept by the Rangers to end their season.

And so went the blink-and-you-missed-it 2023 campaign of John Means, though to him it must have felt like an eternity. In the end, all he had to show for it was those four starts in the final weeks.

So how did those four starts go? As you might imagine, Means looked rusty at the outset. In the first inning of his Sept. 12 debut against the Cardinals, reigning NL MVP Paul Goldschmidt jumped him for a 401-foot homer, one of four batters to register an exit velocity of 100 mph or more against him. Means notched only one strikeout and gave up five hits. His next time out, the results were better — five innings, one run in Houston — but hitters again made good contact, with another four 100+ mph rockets and only one K, plus three walks. It would have been unreasonable to expect Vintage John Means right out of the gate for a guy who went 17 months between MLB appearances, but he had precious little time to prove he was worthy of a spot in the Orioles’ postseason rotation. He needed a signature performance.

In his third start, he delivered exactly that, a sensational outing in Cleveland that “saved our division title,” as Mike Elias later declared. The O’s had lost three straight, narrowing their AL East over the Rays to 1.5 games, with an overworked, exhausted bullpen desperately in need of a break. Means took the Progressive Field mound and dominated the Guardians, carrying a no-hitter into the seventh inning before an Andrés Giménez solo homer proved his only blemish. Means’s 7.1 innings that night marked his longest outing since his no-hitter in Seattle on May 5, 2021. That Sept. 23 performance, followed up by another quality start against the Red Sox in his regular season finale, would have assured him a spot in the ALDS rotation, had the elbow soreness not intervened at the worst possible time.

Though Means’s 2023 might not have played out as he and the Orioles had hoped, he at least knocked off some of the rust and showed glimpses of the pitcher he still can be. Having a normal, healthy offseason will help him return to full strength from the outset in 2024, and he’ll have an Opening Day rotation spot essentially guaranteed. Don’t look now, but a top four of Kyle Bradish, Grayson Rodriguez, Dean Kremer, and Means, on paper, would give the Orioles one of the most impressive season-opening rotations they’ve had in years. And the O’s, hopefully, will do Means a solid and get back to the playoffs next year, giving John Means his long-awaited chance to finally pitch in the postseason.

2023 player reviews: Ryan McKenna, Jacob Webb, Austin Voth/Keegan Akin, Adam Frazier, Jack Flaherty, Shintaro Fujinami, Aaron Hicks, Bryan Baker, Jorge Mateo, Kyle Gibson

Tomorrow: DL Hall