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Groove eludes Flanagan, as role changes yet again


There really is a downside to everything. The Orioles starting rotation has turned the corner. The club has turned into a contender. The early weeks of the season have featured one pleasant development after another.

But in the midst of all the fun and festivity, Mike Flanagan quietly struggles to fit into his new role.

Life does not begin at 40 in the major leagues, but Flanagan is starting over again. The change isn't quite so apparent as last year, when he converted from starter to reliever in his 16th season. But it is just as challenging. Perhaps even more so.

The funny thing is, his job description has not changed. He still is the club's principal left-handed setup man. But the success of the starting rotation and the lack of another left-hander in the bullpen have had a dramatic effect on his bullpen routine and his time on the mound.

"That's true," he said. "I guess I was naive in thinking that the role that I had last year was going to be the same this year. Even toward the end of spring training, I felt it would work out that way. Now, I realize what a difference having one left-hander is going to make."

The original bullpen schematic included both Flanagan and left-hander Jim Poole, but a bout with shoulder tendinitis has kept Poole on the sidelines since spring training. Because Flanagan is the only left-hander in the bullpen, he has been used largely in single-hitter, lefty vs. lefty situations during the first month of play.

Last night he came on to get a big out in the top of the eighth inning of the Orioles' 5-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox.

"I told Gregg Olson, 'You think you're the short man,' " Flanagan said. "I think I've had the most games on the team and the fewest innings."

Olson knows all about the way a relief role can stay the same and change at the same time. He is getting regular work in pressure situations again after spending the 1991 season wondering where his next save opportunity would come from. It shows in his 2.13 ERA.

"With the way our starting pitchers are throwing, I'm not going to get into 72 games this year like I did last year and Flanny isn't going to get the same amount of innings," Olson said. "He also has to adjust to being the only left-hander. So, it's tough to get into a groove."

Flanagan is getting far less work than a year ago, and the results have been far from impressive. In 11 appearances, he has pitched 6 2/3 innings and allowed 12 base runners. His 6.75 ERA is not the issue, since all five of the earned runs Flanagan has given up this year have come in just two games, but he has seven walks and a hit batsman, which is a strong indication that he has yet to make all the necessary adjustments to his new pitching schedule.

"Last year, I held my groove from the first day of the season until the last day," he said. "This year, I haven't found that groove that is appropriate to this role. There have been times I've gone in there and I'm out of the game before I even know what is working for me that night."

The easiest answer is that he needs more work -- to get on the mound and stretch it out a couple of times -- but that won't be an option until Poole returns or there is a significant change in the chemistry of the pitching staff. He is caught between the club's success and his own desire to be a part of it.

"I've never been one to put myself in front of the team," he said. "I can't say, 'I have to have more work.' I can only say that he [manager Johnny Oates] is going to need me and I want to be ready. I'm trying to find the proper routine so that I can be successful. It's just another adjustment that has to be made."

Flanagan proved last year that he can make that kind of adjustment. He went to spring training to compete for a place in the Orioles starting rotation and ended up in a regular bullpen role for the first time in his career.

The results speak for themselves. He made 64 appearances and finished among the top American League relievers in games (64), ERA (2.38) and innings (98 1/3 ). He held left-handed hitters to a .181 combined average, the lowest in the league.

He doesn't figure to get nearly as many innings in the new pitching environment, not with the starters averaging nearly 6 2/3 innings. Even when there have been opportunities for an extended outing, Oates has been hesitant to risk using him up when he might be needed in a tight situation the next day.

"At first, I was saying, it will be better when Jim Poole gets back," Flanagan said. "But I realize that it's going to be a while before he comes back. I'm going to have to find a way to maintain a groove with less work.

"I've talked about it with Dick Hall and other relievers who have pitched with outstanding rotations. He only pitched a couple times a week, but he would pitch two or three innings and finish the game. This situation is kind of unique to this era."

Flanagan's 1991, 1992 stats

Year..W-L..ERA.. G.. SV.. IP.. .H.. BB.. SO

1991..2-7..2.38..64.. 3.. 98.1..84..25.. 55

1992..0-0..6.43..12.. 0.. .7.0.. 4.. 7.. .5

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