CLEVELAND -- For years Mike Flanagan was a symbol of the Orioles' excellence. Now he's an example of the club's frustration.
Despite their passable 3-and-3 record going into today's finale with the Cleveland Indians, this hasn't been a smooth road trip for the Orioles. They started with two wins in Detroit, but Mike Mussina's 6-0 shutout of the Tigers last Friday night is the only "clean" game they have played in the past six.
There have been fumbles, stumbles and blunders, with last night's 7-5 loss to the Indians just the latest example. But don't try to sell manager Johnny Oates on the theory that a trend might be developing -- or that the sky is falling in.
"We're not going to play perfect baseball all year," said Oates. "But we'll be fine.
"I'm not going to panic, it's not the end of the world. The physical mistakes -- like Flanagan not being able to get the ball out of his glove and then throwing it wild -- are part of the game," said Oates, the 6,935th manager to make that proclamation. "That happens to every team.
"The mental mistakes will be taken care of by me -- one-on-one -- and nobody will ever know about it. That's the way I've always been, and that's the way I'll continue to be.
"I'm not going to get too excited about these last few games -- just like I didn't start ordering World Series tickets when we won seven in a row. It'll work itself out."
Flanagan, who is in the midst of a horrendous rut, threw only four pitches last night. But the two batters he faced ended up being the key to the game.
Kenny Lofton got an infield hit on a roller up the middle, then Thomas Howard laid down a squeeze bunt that Flanagan literally had in the palm of his hand. The trouble was he couldn't get the ball out of his glove in time, and when he did, he threw it wildly down the rightfield line. The Indians, who might have been cut off with one run in the seventh, scored twice on the play, which also set up a fourth run.
"That's the kind of play that hurts the individual more than it hurts the team," Oates said of Flanagan's error, only his third in the past 267 games. "He's probably a little down right now; I've talked to him and I know he is.
"But it'll turn around. It'll end.
"There were a number of things that decided the game tonight. And not all of them were our fault. They got a couple of bunts down and got a couple of hits when they needed them."
A year ago, the Orioles would already have assured a successful road trip by winning three of the first six games. But the pattern they established in the first 60 games this year demands closer scrutiny. Some are worrying that Flanagan, who has allowed 10 earned runs (12 total) in only 1 1/3 innings over his last three appearances, suddenly has lost it at age 40.
Others think that the recent "trend" merely means the Orioles finally are showing their true colors.
All of which offends Oates, who never promised a rose garden, but doesn't think he has to weed out dandelions either.
"You guys have to describe it after the fact," Oates told reporters. "We have to eliminate it before [today's] game, forget about it and come out ready to play."
As unattractive as last night's game appeared on the surface, Oates managed to find some things about which to be encouraged. He had a chat with starter Ben McDonald (7-4) on the mound after removing the righthander [in favor of Flanagan], and it wasn't a negative conversation.
"I told him I thought he threw the ball good," said Oates. "He made some good pitches, and that's what we want to see. I don't think they exactly bashed him -- except for [Albert] Belle's home run.
"He threw some good fastballs, some good curveballs, some good changeups, although he did get hurt with one on the triple to Lofton [in the fifth inning]. He's not going to shut this team out forever."
McDonald had a string of 21 straight scoreless innings against the Indians before Belle's homer in the fourth.
The game was as lackluster as the road trip has been, and Oates is not unaware of the tendencies. He disputes strongly, however, that they should be interpreted as a trend.
Oates acknowledged that the Orioles have made mistakes on the basepaths in each of the last three games, but says that is not a reason to panic.
"We talk all the time about hitters thinking about what they want to do when they go to the plate," said Oates. "We talk all the time about pitchers thinking about what they want to do in certain situations. We do the same thing with baserunners.
"You're going to make mistakes, so you just keep reminding them over and over," said Oates.
But one thing he won't do is talk publicly about things that might be going wrong. "The more you talk about them, the more you think about them," he said. "And the more you think about them, the more you do them."
So, instead of dwelling on the negatives, Oates preferred to pull some positives out of last night's loss -- home runs by Sam Horn and Glenn Davis (No. 4 for both), three hits by Mike Devereaux, an acceptable performance by McDonald.
There was even a positive note for Flanagan, whose uncharacteristic wildness has been a source of concern. "He threw strikes," said Oates.
Oh yes, as insignificant as it is at this point in the season, the Orioles didn't lose any ground to Toronto last night. They remain just a half-game behind the division-leading Blue Jays.