Mussina, Flanagan show Birds success has no age


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Orioles got a glimpse of their future plus a look at their past yesterday, and the view was fine from both directions.

Mike Mussina, whose best is yet to come, and Mike Flanagan, who can pitch by memory if necessary, made impressive exhibition debuts as the Orioles outlasted the Yankees, 6-3 in 10 innings.

The two Mikes pitched the first six innings, with an unearned run charged to the rookie the only blemish on their combined record. The results were pleasing enough for manager Frank Robinson -- but not enough to necessarily alter his opinion this early in spring training.

Robinson saw about what he expected -- or at least hoped for -- but admitted it would take an improbable combination of factors for Mussina to open the season with the Orioles. "I liked what I saw," said Robinson, "but he would have to pitch awfully well, or somebody would have to pitch awfully bad for him to make it.

"The door isn't shut," Robinson said of Mussina, "but it will be tough for him to make it out of spring training."

That of course isn't the case with Flanagan. The Orioles hope he can aid their staff with his knowledge as well as his ability. "He knows how to pitch, knows what to do," said Robinson. "It's just a question of finding out if he still has the ability to get hitters out.

"He did what you would expect him to do -- throw strikes, make them put the ball in play. He threw the ball over the plate and made them swing the bat."

Though in a sense he is starting over with the Orioles, Flanagan does not liken this to his early years when he was trying to make the team. "This is a lot different," he said. "Then, every time you went out there could be the last. Or, at least that it could be when a decision was made.

"I don't feel that kind of pressure now. I feel like they're going to give me a chance to make the club, but I don't think it's going to depend on what happens each time I go out there. In the end, if I don't make it, it will be because I didn't pitch well.

"This was a start -- something I can build on," said Flanagan, 39. "I didn't take any steps backward. I'm not going to try and do too much, too soon. That's where the experience comes in."

Pitching coach Al Jackson was more than satisfied with what he saw yesterday, especially with Mussina, a 22-year-old righthander who was the Orioles' No. 1 draft pick last June out of Stanford. "I've always felt the first real test of a pitcher is how he responds after a tough outing," said Jackson.

"The last time he turned a good outing into a so-so outing," Jackson said, referring to the team's first intrasquad game. "Then he came back [yesterday] and threw very well. You like to see that."

Although nothing has been said officially, Jackson seems to favor Flanagan in a relief role, rather than as a starter. But that's a decision that won't be made for at least a couple more weeks.

"They haven't said anything to me yet," said Flanagan. "It did feel a little strange not starting a game. Coming in and facing Don Mattingly right out of the chute was different."

The lefthander, who is fourth on the Orioles' all-time victory list (139), is attempting a comeback after being released last year by the Toronto Blue Jays. "There's no comparison between how I feel now and this time last year," he said.

The three innings Flanagan pitched yesterday represent one more than he threw during the entire shortened spring training a year ago. "I'm overworked already," he quipped.

"Last year I sat around for three weeks because that's what the [players] association wanted us to do," said Flanagan, who feels the interruption meant he was not ready to pitch when he left spring training.

"It wasn't that there was anything wrong with my arm," he said. "It's just that I never got a chance to get to full strength."

Flanagan was released last season after pitching only 20 innings for the Blue Jays, a hasty move that may have been costly as the season developed. Now he's back in a comfortable element, even though there are only a handful of players still around from 1987, when he was traded to Toronto.

"I don't feel like a stranger though," said Flanagan. "I know most of these guys from working out and playing basketball during the winter.

"I'm comfortable with the program and I think this is a step in the right direction. I have a number of things I have to work on, but I'm pleased with this.

"Usually in spring training everything is in place or you're struggling to get some timing," Flanagan said. "I'm probably right in the middle now. I'm not completely in a groove yet, but it's not bad either."

Flanagan is aware of the possibility he could be used out of the bullpen for the first time in his career, but it doesn't bother him. "That's a decision that will be made when the starters start going six innings," he said. "That's when the innings start to disappear. It would be a lot easier to make the adjustment from starter to reliever rather than the other way. But we've got a couple of weeks before that's going to happen."

Everyone involved claimed that yesterday's performance would have little bearing on Flanagan's status, but there's no doubt that three scoreless innings [one hit] was the desired result. "I don't want to get ahead of myself," said Flanagan.

But he didn't want to fall behind either -- and he didn't.

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