BALTIMORE -- Once the Orioles finally shifted their attention to the future last season, the list of major league debuts was long. So many familiar names from the top prospect lists. So much future star power. Seemingly a debut a day.
And yet it's the last of them, and in the eyes of many the least talented of them, who is making the biggest mark on this young Orioles season so far. John Means isn't going anywhere.
The rookie left-hander continued his revelatory start to 2019 with five innings of one-run ball, striking out a career-high six batters on his 26th birthday, as the Orioles held on tight for a 4-3 win against the Chicago White Sox before an announced 10,550 on Wednesday night at Camden Yards.
Since making the Orioles out of spring training as a rather unlikely member of the Opening Day pitching staff, he has earned a win in long relief in the third game of the season, received a pair of starts after Alex Cobb went back on the injured list and reverted to a bullpen role before making Wednesday's spot start.
Means' start was required because both Dan Straily and Cobb pitched in Saturday's doubleheader. With any more outings like this, it will be hard for manager Brandon Hyde to keep him out of the rotation permanently.
Wednesday's win started tenuously for Means, who needed 25 pitches and worked around two well-hit singles to keep the White Sox off the board in the first inning. He got better as things went on, however, and started picking up swinging strikes on the pitch that has given him the look of a bona fide major leaguer this month: his much-improved change-up.
Means spent his entire minor league career as a fastball-slider pitcher, though he came into spring training with much better fastball velocity -- averaging 92 mph after topping out at 91 mph most of last season. He honed body and his change-up at P3 Premier Pitching & Performance near St. Louis -- three hours away from his home in the Kansas City area -- and worked with minor league pitching coordinator Chris Holt to try and bring along the pitch further in spring training.
The result is clear: Means isn't unhittable, but he sure is hard to get a bat on. Of his six strikeouts, all were swinging, and five came on the change-up. His 92 pitches gave him an even 400 on the season. He's gotten swinging strikes on 61 of those, for a 15.25 percent swinging strike rate. Among pitchers with at least 20 innings, that's fifth-best in the majors, with stars such as Blake Snell, Max Scherzer, and Gerrit Cole above him and Jacob deGrom below him.
It's mostly thanks to the change-up. Chicago's only run against him came on a four-pitch sequence when he threw two curveballs to Tim Anderson, who singled, and then two fastballs to Jose Abreu, who doubled to score Anderson.
Means worked around a two-out walk in the fifth inning to leave with a 4-1 lead, thanks to run-scoring hits by Renato Nunez and Rio Ruiz in the first inning, a sacrifice fly by Hanser Alberto in the second and Stevie Wilkerson's first career home run in the fourth.
Evan Phillips allowed a run in the sixth, but he, Paul Fry and Mychal Givens made it two straight wins for the Orioles after Givens allowed a run and left the tying run on third base in the ninth. It ends their homestand on a positive note before they reprise this week's opponents and face the Minnesota Twins and the White Sox on the road.
They'll do so with an unlikely left-hander trying to force his way into their rotation permanently.
Means is no longer the pitcher who went station-to-station in the minors and few scouts viewed as a major league starter. He faced another lineup of exclusively right-handed hitters and kept them at bay with his change-up -- just as he did in that outing to start his season against the New York Yankees that started this breakout stretch of his career.
"I just think that outing in New York just boosted his confidence big-time, being able to go through that order the way that he did, in that environment," Hyde said before the game. "I think that he proved to himself that he can get elite big league hitters out, and he's running with it."
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