So far, so good Flanagan's success opens range of Oriole options

April 17, 1991|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Evening Sun Staff

MILWAUKEE -- Mike Flanagan jokingly refers to his new job as that of a "short starter."

His role probably won't be clearly defined for another month -- after the Orioles sort out their various options and settle on a 10-man staff.

But for the moment, the veteran lefthander is adapting to life in the bullpen. To say he is enjoying this comeback, which has made him something of a cult hero in the Orioles' final year at Memorial Stadium, is an understatement.

To say that the Orioles have been impressed is an even bigger understatement.

"I've had a little more to chew on each time out," said Flanagan, 39. "The first time [Opening Day] I just needed some work.

"The next time it was to get a couple of hitters out. The third time we had a lead and the last time I came into a jam," he said of his appearance in Monday's 7-2 victory over the Brewers.

"This has given me a better appreciation for relief pitchers," he said. "After all those years of them saving me, it's nice to be able to help out."

Flanagan has no illusions, or delusions, about his current status. He has no wins or saves to accompany his 0.00 earned run average in 6 1/3 innings, during which he has allowed only two hits.

"I've got over 300 decisions and 400 starts," he said. "Those things [statistics] are not my motivation at this point."

Whether Flanagan stays in the bullpen most likely depends on circumstances over which he has no control. Manager Frank Robinson is still sorting through candidates for what he hopes will become a steady five-man rotation.

"Right now I like what he's giving us out of the bullpen," Robinson said during yesterday's off-day workout. "He brings some experience into the game and you know he's not going to panic."

Robinson does not rule out the possibility of Flanagan becoming a starter, but he won't commit to anything beyond the immediate future. And it's obvious the manager likes the luxury of what Flanagan has been able to provide so far.

On Monday, Flanagan came into the game with runners on second and third, one out, and the Orioles holding a 3-2 lead. Two lefthanded hitters were scheduled to face him, but each time a righthanded pinch-hitter came on instead.

It took Flanagan 10 pitches -- five strikes -- to record four outs, the first two on an inning-ending double play that resulted from the most important pitch of the game.

"That's a perfect example of what I'm talking about," said Robinson. "He wasn't going to give the first hitter anything to hit and he wasn't going to get upset because he walked him. He knows how to pitch -- and he can get the ground ball when he needs it.

"One thing we have to find out is how he responds to being out there. The days off have helped so far, but we still have to find out if he can come back the next day, or if he needs a day in between."

The adjustment, Flanagan says, has gone smoothly and he admits there are things about working in the bullpen that are appealing. "When you're a starter you pitch one day, then you're sore one day, stiff the next, throw on the side, then you're almost 100 percent and you pitch the next day," he said of the routine he has followed his entire career until now.

"I've yet to feel that kind of tiredness," said Flanagan, "and I don't miss that. I haven't been sore or stiff and there hasn't been a time I didn't feel like I could pitch longer -- or pitch the next day."

With four appearances in six games, Flanagan was tied for second place in the American League in that department. Only the Yankees' Greg Cadaret, with five, had made more appearances before last night. And the Yankees have played eight games while the Orioles have only played six.

"That's a little scary," quipped Flanagan.

Flanagan, who won 139 games and the 1979 Cy Young Award in his first 12 years with the Orioles, rejoined the team as a non-roster player in spring training. The Orioles traded him to Toronto in 1987 for pitchers Oswald Peraza and Jose Mesa, but Toronto released him after a 2-2 start in 1990. He sat out the rest of last season, working out in Baltimore to get his arm back into shape.

Although he's a newcomer to this cast of Orioles, Flanagan is not unaware of the club's needs. "I know Willie [Mark Williamson] and Ollie [Gregg Olson] get a lot of work," he said. "If I can take an inning or so away from those guys it makes them much more effective.

"And that kind of thing can have a snowball effect on everybody," said Flanagan, whose return to the Orioles has been the most appealing story of the young season.

There's no telling yet where the comeback trail may lead for Flanagan. He might return to the starting rotation, where his arm once again would have to get used to the hurting that goes with that territory.

Or, he could stay in the bullpen, where his arm would have to adjust to a different kind of ache. There is always a possibility that the bullpen could prolong what already has been a satisfying career.

What matters the most to Flanagan is the setting and the circumstances. He's back where he started, something he once thought would be impossible, and he's contributing.

And for the Orioles there is a bonus. The snowball effect also carries over to the clubhouse, where Mike Flanagan can only help young pitchers on a team striving to be a contender.


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