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Orioles’ offensive futility ruins Means’s return in 5-2 loss to Cardinals

John Means was solid in his first start since April 2022, but the Orioles’ 1-for-12 performance with men in scoring position sunk their chances.

St. Louis Cardinals v Baltimore Orioles
It was this kind of a game.
Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

On a day when the Orioles welcomed back their former ace after 17 months away, they failed to show him how awesome of a club they’ve become in the meantime. The O’s put up an uncharacteristically inept showing with runners in scoring position, wasting one rally after another in a frustrating 5-2 loss to the Cardinals.

Let’s start with the man of the hour, John Means, the O’s All-Star making his long-awaited return to the mound after 17 long months recovering from Tommy John surgery. Oh, how we’ve missed you, buddy.

Means’s first outing back in the majors after the extended layoff was, as you might expect, a bit of a mixed bag. He made a couple of mistakes that the Cardinals made him pay for, with slugger Paul Goldschmidt socking a high fastball into the center-field bullpen for a first-inning solo homer, and definite non-slugger Richie Palacios jumping on a hanging 0-2 curve in the fourth for a flag court homer to right. Yeah, there’s some rust to shake off.

But overall, Means looked much more at ease on the mound than I frankly expected. He wasn’t quite vintage John Means, but he pounded the zone — throwing 55 of 75 pitches for strikes and issuing no walks — and commanded his pitches pretty well. His pitch arsenal, too, was almost back to normal, with his fastball hitting 91-92 mph, and his changeup inducing some silly swings and misses.

The one run Means allowed that wasn’t a homer came on a fluky inning full of bad-luck doinks and bloopers. That was the top of the second, which began with Willson Contreras basically throwing his bat one-handed at a changeup way outside and looping it into center for a hit, followed by Tyler O’Neill doing much the same for a soft single to right.

Nolan Gorman followed with a routine grounder to first, but Ryan O’Hearn hesitated too long thinking about throwing it to second that by the time he flipped to first, Gorman outran Means to the bag. The Cards had loaded the bases with nobody out, though Means managed to escape with just one run of damage, that on a Jordan Walker sac fly to center on which Cedric Mullins made a poor throw to the plate.

Means ultimately gutted through five innings and 75 pitches in his return, giving up three runs and four hits while striking out one. On most nights, that would have been plenty good enough to win. On this atrocious night for the O’s offense, though, three runs proved too difficult to overcome despite oodles of scoring opportunities.

The frustrations for the Orioles began right away with a promising first-inning rally that fizzled into nothing. Cardinals veteran Adam Wainwright, a future Hall of Famer who has stumbled to an 8.19 ERA in his final big league season, seemed ripe for the picking when he issued eight consecutive balls to walk Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson. But Anthony Santander, perhaps expecting Wainwright to continue missing the strike zone, uncharacteristically didn’t swing at a single pitch and took strike three on a 3-2 count. After that, Wainwright induced a groundout and a foul pop to strand both runners.

Back when the O’s were a horrendous team every year, squandering that kind of scoring opportunity was such an expected result that it was called “Oriole’ing.” But that moniker no longer seems appropriate, considering the current Birds are one of the best teams in the majors with runners in scoring position (.850 OPS). So perhaps we should rename that type of futility after a different team. An awful, laughably bad team that’s just constantly screwing up.

So, yeah, the Orioles really Yankee’d up that first-inning rally.

The O’s put another man in scoring position in the third on a Gunnar Henderson one-out double, only for Wainwright to retire Santander and Ryan O’Hearn on grounders. Then came another disaster in the fourth. A pair of singles and an uncharacteristic error by Gold Glove third baseman Nolan Arenado gifted the Orioles a bases-loaded threat with one down. Perfect! Just don’t hit into a double play. Just don’t hit into a double play. Just don’t...aaaand James McCann hit into a double play. The 6-4-3 twin killing ended the inning with no runs across.

Sigh. Yankee’d.

Finally, in the fifth, the O’s broke onto the scoreboard, but not without wasting an opportunity to do more damage. Rutschman and Henderson started the inning with a walk and single, respectively, and this time Santander came through, ripping an RBI single to right to make it a 3-1 game. It was the Birds’ first hit with a man in scoring position, and — spoiler alert! — it would be their last. O’Hearn, at least, drove in a run on a productive out, a fielder’s choice at second that plated Henderson. The Birds were down by just one.

With two outs, Austin Hays roped a double down the left-field line that moved O’Hearn to third, and the O’s were a base hit away from taking the lead. Wainwright, at 90 pitches, was running on fumes, and nobody was warming in the bullpen as the Cardinals wanted to give him every opportunity to earn his 199th career win.

In arguably the most crucial at-bat of the game, the 42-year-old right-hander geared up and struck out Adam Frazier on four pitches, getting him to chase a curveball in the dirt for out number three. Good for Wainwright. Not so much for the Orioles.

The O’s failed to build on that fifth-inning momentum, while the Cardinals padded their lead with two runs off Jórge López in the seventh. That included a second home run from Palacios, the Towson alum, who had only one career home run in 69 games entering the game, and in fact was only in this game because Gorman left with an injury. What is even happening here?

Of course, the Birds suffered one last moment of ignominy in the seventh. Again, they put the first two runners on base. And again, they did nothing with it. Cedric Mullins grounded into a gut-punch double play when he stutter-stepped before reaching first base, and Hays popped out. Everyone, say it with me now: Yankee’d. An inning later, McCann grounded into his second double play of the game and the Orioles’ third.

The O’s went down 1-2-3 against closer Ryan Helsley in the ninth, and that was that. Wainwright, a pitcher the O’s should have destroyed based on his 2023 stats, instead earned his 199th win. If he’s gonna do us like that, he might as well get to 200 now. And now we hope the Twins can hold onto their lead against the Rays, which sits at 3-2 in the eighth as I write this. (UPDATE: The Rays indeed lost, preserving the Orioles’ division lead at three games. Thanks, Twins!)