In football circles, there is a saying: defense wins championships.
Regarding baseball, the saying is that pitching wins championships. Even in an era emphasizing more on the relief side of the coin, starting pitching still reigns king.
For years (no, decades), the Baltimore Orioles have yearned for durable and reliable starting pitching. Who would blame them? In fact, who would blame the fans for wanting such a significant piece (or pieces) to a potential championship puzzle? After all, look at what they have had to wade through to make them starve for it. From 1998-2011 (the “Dark Ages,” as Oriole fans call it), Baltimore ranked 25th in innings pitched by starting pitchers (13,086.2), 26th in complete game shutouts (22) and 27th in starting pitching ERA (5.04).
Baltimore did not have much luck over the following nine years (2012-20) of MLB action, either. What were their numbers over that stretch, you ask? Even with three playoff appearances over the stretch (2012, 2014 and 2016), Baltimore ranked 26th in innings pitched by starting pitchers (7,367.2), 29th in ERA (4.80) and tied for 30th in complete game shutouts (five). Even if you take the rebuilding years out of the equation and solely look at the successful 2012-16 stretch, it is not much better – Baltimore ranked 26th in starting pitching ERA (4.36), was tied for 27th in complete game shutouts (four) and ranked 28th in innings pitched (4,632.0).
You get the idea, and you would not be insane to expect similar production (or lack thereof) in 2021. A rebuilding team with the bulk of their premier pitching prospects still on the farm would, on paper, leave a bit to be desired regarding plentiful innings, a respectable ERA and any possibility of getting a shutout.
Enter John Means.
Heading into the 2021 season, Means was expected to anchor a rotation desperate for a starter capable of sponging innings. Even still, he was not expected to pitch anywhere close to a shutout game in and game out. The 11th-round pick out of the 2014 MLB Draft possessed a solid changeup that paired nicely with a dependable fastball, but for anyone to expect him to twirl together dominant inning after dominant inning would be bolder than other takes out there.
All assumptions, however, were flung out of the Space Needle on May 5, as Means pitched a no-hitter against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park for Baltimore’s 10th no-no in franchise history.
A no-hitter, however, would somehow cheapen what the 28-year-old West Virginia alum did on the mound, as he struck out 12 and allowed only one batter to reach base (Sam Haggerty in the third inning), which came via a strikeout that resulted in a wild pitch. In case clarification is needed – he was one less wild pitch away from a perfect game.
So, so close, but oh, so far.
Even still, what can be said about the performance outside of the blatantly obvious? It was not only a career feat for Means, but a franchise feat and MLB feat, too.
Well, aside from it being Means’ first complete game shutout in the majors, it was also Baltimore’s first no-hitter since July 13, 1991, when four Oriole pitchers combined to blank the Oakland Athletics, 2-0. In terms of individual no-hitters, it was the first for the franchise since Aug. 13, 1969 when Jim Palmer shut down Sam Blando, Bert Campaneris, and the rest of Oakland’s lineup at Memorial Stadium.
When comparing Means’ no-hitter to the other seven individual no-hitters in Orioles/St. Louis Browns history, his 12-strikeout performance is the only one to reach double-digits in the punch-out department. He is additionally the only oneof the eight to face the minimum number of batters (27). Remember – while Haggerty reached base via a wild pitch, catcher Pedro Severino was able to connect with shortstop Ramon Urias and tag the 26-year-old out.
Facing the minimum 27, however, is where Means’ performance begins to tread into territory involving all of MLB history.
Means’ performance is the first of its kind that allowed no hit by pitches, walks, hits and additionally went 9.0 innings and faced the minimum number of batters since Aug. 15, 2012 (Felix Hernandez vs. Tampa Bay).
However, the feat does not end there. Means’ outing is one of only five such outings in MLB history (dating back to 1901) to walk zero, strike out at least 12 and face the minimum number of batters. The other four? Sandy Koufax (Sep. 9, 1965 against the Chicago Cubs), Randy Johnson (May 18, 2004 against the Atlanta Braves), Matt Cain (June 13, 2012 against the Houston Astros) and Hernandez (Aug. 15, 2012, against the Rays).
The historic comparisons (and accomplishments, for that matter) can go on and on, but when you have a down-and-away changeup working like this, you are bound to turn heads.
To keep it blunt – this was a special performance. For Means, it was not only a career feat, but a personal one that was in homage for his late father, who the 28-year-old felt was spiritually there with him through every out of the game.
Then, there is how special this performance was to the franchise. The franchise that, over the past two-plus decades, has not been able to effectively build up a starting rotation worthy of consistently competing for postseason berths year in and year out. With every dependable performance came a putrid one. The franchise, and with it, its fans, were reeling for something better. Something more exciting. Something with more variety. Something with more reason for hope.
Sure, Means only makes up a fraction of a traditional five-man rotation, but he is a building block toward something the Orioles have not had in many, many years. His performance illustrated that his pitches play, and he can be the veteran to a young staff blooming with youth and potential.
Starting pitching wins championships, and while the 2021 rendition of the Orioles might remain on the rebuilding side of the spectrum, they now have something to celebrate moving forward.
Sometimes, one game is all it takes for the bigger picture to start bearing positive fruit.
And that is cause for celebration.