A month ago, it was fair to wonder whether John Means would even have a start he felt good about this season, let alone pitch like the All-Star he was last year.
Now, it’s worth wondering if he’s ever been better.
Means turned in the Orioles' best start of a season that increasingly has plenty of candidates for that distinction, striking out a career-high 12 batters and tying a franchise record with seven straight strikeouts at one point in a 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays that prevented a five-game series sweep in Sunday’s home finale at Camden Yards.
The dozen strikeouts Means contributed, plus two apiece from Dillon Tate and Hunter Harvey, meant the Orioles (23-31) struck out 16 batters, one shy of the franchise record for a nine-inning game.
For Means, the start was a continuation of the late-season turnaround he credits to a meeting with manager Brandon Hyde in which Hyde told him he was getting away from what made him an All-Star in 2019 and was pitching frustrated instead of freely.
Means came to the mound for his next start against the New York Mets on Sept. 8 with an 8.10 ERA, but turned in the first of three straight starts in which he went at least five innings and allowed one earned run by locating his fastball well and keeping hitters off balance with his changeup.
That was the plan Sunday with the most effective fastball of Means' career. Before Sunday, the most swinging strikes he got on his fastball in a start was nine. He had achieved that by the third inning, with 16 swinging strikes overall on his fastball and a career-high 20 total swinging strikes.
Means struck out the last two batters of the first inning to strand one runner, then all three batters he faced in the second and the first two batters of the third to tie Sammy Stewart for the club record for most consecutive strikeouts in a game, though Manuel Margo singled to break that streak.
A home run by Willy Adames came with two outs in a fourth inning that also featured three strikeouts, and Means came out of the game at 97 pitches in the sixth inning. His ERA is down to 5.01.
Early but not often
The Orioles struck quickly against Rays starter Ryan Yarbrough, with Hanser Alberto doubling and moving to third on a single by Austin Hays. With two runners in scoring position and one out, Renato Núñez flopped a single just over the pulled-in infield to score both and give the Orioles an early 2-0 lead.
Núñez had a single in the sixth inning, but that was the Orioles' only other hit until Alberto had an infield single to begin the eighth inning.
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