After John Means recorded his 27th and final out without allowing a hit Wednesday afternoon, the running and jumping and shouting from him and his Baltimore Orioles teammates carried into the visitors’ clubhouse at T-Mobile Park in Seattle.
“Our clubhouse after the game,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said, “it was like we clinched a playoff spot.”
Hyde would know what that feels like. Before becoming Baltimore’s manager, Hyde served as the Chicago Cubs’ first base coach for their World Series run in 2016. But for many of the Orioles players, they haven’t experienced that elation — at least not while wearing orange.
The Orioles have been a bottom feeder since the playoff days, with former stars such as Adam Jones, came and went. Since 2018, they’ve served more as a punching bag for the dominant clubs in American League East. But things are starting to change.
The Birds still sit at the bottom of the division, but Means’ no-hitter showed the national baseball audience what has been on display for much of the year: These Orioles are no longer anyone’s easy out.
There are good pieces in place, young bats and prospects waiting in the wings, with a legit ace who just recorded the franchise’s first complete-game no-hitter since 1969.
“It’s about time,” Means said. “I think we’ve got a lot of fun guys to watch, to be honest with you. I think we have some great hitters. [Cedric] Mullins, [Austin] Hays, [Trey] Mancini — there’s a bunch of them. And a great bullpen and a great rotation. I think we have a really good team, and it’s about time people started to pay attention.”
For all the prospects the Orioles have accumulated over the past few years of roster shedding, Means wasn’t one of them. He was an 11th-round draft pick, rated the 29th-best prospect in Baltimore’s system in 2017.
But he has developed into one of baseball’s best pitchers early in 2021, with a 1.37 ERA to go along with a 0.67 WHIP. He has 50 strikeouts to 10 walks, and only a dropped third strike kept Means from throwing a perfect game Wednesday.
A look around the rest of the roster shows a mix of the same. Cesar Valdez, the Orioles’ soft-throwing 36-year-old closer, had appeared in 29 major league games between 2010 and 2020. But Valdez has earned seven saves this season, walking three batters while striking out 15 despite a fastball topping out around 85 mph. And other players are blossoming at the right time. Mancini, who missed 2020 as he battled colon cancer, has 25 RBIs this season — tied for second-most in the majors. Mullins hit .094 to begin the 2019 season and finished playing in Double-A. Now he’s hitting .320, and his 39 hits are tied for the second-most in baseball.
Those players are a large reason why Baltimore sat one game below .500 and just three games back of the division lead entering Thursday. The Orioles look more capable of maintaining pace than past seasons — such as when they finished 61 games back in 2018 and 49 games back in 2019.
But for the time being, Means’ no-hitter gives Baltimore something to smile about.
“We just haven’t had a whole lot to cheer for the last couple years,” Hyde said. “And these guys haven’t had the opportunity to celebrate a lot of things. Two years ago was rough. We stayed competitive last year. But to watch our guys celebrate, that’s a cool moment.”