John Eisenberg: Real comeback at spring training is Flanagan's

He was the first player out of the Orioles' dugout at the start of the seventh inning, walking slack-shouldered on a hot, indolent afternoon at a tumbledown ballpark near the ocean, maybe a thousand fans scattered around the bleachers. "Whoozat? Kevin Hickey?" said a man behind the backstop.Mike Flanagan reached the mound and began to warm up. His left-handed pitches cracked into Chris Hoiles' glove, the sound the only sharpness among round, dull circumstances. It was a "B" game against the Expos, not a damn bit important, the Orioles down four after another middling performance by Bob Milacki.

A few people clapped when Flanagan's name was announced, oh yeah, he use-a pitch. A girl was giving $8 haircuts in the stands, barber's chair and all, true story. The grandstand smelled of hamburgers on the grill. The first Montreal batter was Brett Barberi, a non-roster infielder, un jouer invite in the media guide.

Flanagan's first pitch was a fastball, just off the outside corner. Then a curve aimed at the same spot, this time nicking the corner. Then a slower fastball inside, on the hands, fouled off. Finally, a slow, mega-looping curve on the outside corner, a lunging swing, goodbye.

Welcome to the real comeback of the Orioles' spring. Mike Flanagan has pitched 15 potent innings now, mixing pitches, speeds and locations with a learned touch giving away his 39 years. His is a flute solo next to the rock and roll of the younger pitchers in camp, but his success has been such that his spot on the staff is all but assured.

That it is all an illusion, a false spring born of the Florida sun, is certainly possible. And it is wrong to expect too much; Flanagan has won but 40 games since Reagan was re-elected, and rehabbed a weak shoulder last winter. But the 42 pitches he threw yesterday were gems, and not the first of the month. Whatever comes of it, this comeback is neither a gesture nor a reach. It carries a real weight.

The second Montreal batter in the seventh was Otis Nixon, a major-leaguer. Flanagan needed four pitches to turn him around. A sharp breaking ball in the dirt, inside. A fastball down the middle, surprise, late swing, strike. A sidearm curve, fouled. Another curve, overhand this time, coming outside-in, covering the inside corner, Nixon just watching it, bye-bye.

Later, in the cool of the clubhouse, sweat beaded on his mustache, smokes and sunglasses in his locker, Flanagan would say that he wasn't quite as sharp as he'd been in his first four outings this spring, having thrown 85 pitches Sunday, then come back with only three days' rest. But his curve grows sharper when he is tired, he said, and indeed, it was a giant parabola.

Spike Owen, the third Expo to bat in the seventh, saw three fat curves, one a sidearm, then a couple of fastballs, one inside and fast, one out side and slower. The count moved full, Flanagan threw a fastball inside, and Owen, guessing, bounced to the second baseman. Three outs. Rising applause from the seats. A beautiful inning.

It should be noted that the least surprised person is Flanagan, not because he has a false sense of his talent at 39, but because he has been throwing this well beneath the Memorial Stadium stands since January. It is the same training regimen he has used to get ready for the last 15 seasons. Nothing seems different. You come to camp, you pitch well, you make the team. Every year is a comeback at this point.

So many others are surprised because he lost velocity in Toronto last year and was released, but with his velocity back a year later, it is becoming evident that the lockout-shortened spring of 1990 gave him little chance to prepare his arm as usual for the season. Three months of rehab have him throwing as hard as 1987, he said. It's a sweet story, but not a sweetened one. It's just true.

The first two batters in the eighth were strikeouts, first Larry Walker on an enormous curve dropping in from the sun, then Andres Galarraga, no paper lion, after an inside-outside-inside game straight out of "Whitey Ford's How to Pitch Baseball." The third batter was Marquis Grissom, another comer, another strikeout, the last two pitches a sidearm curve inside and a fastball across the outside corner.

Changing pitches, changing speeds, mixing locations: It is the blend Flanagan has used since his fastball started to give out a little bit after a decade and a Cy Young and 120 wins. The Orioles traded him to Toronto in August of 1987, but now it is as if he never left, he said, with Elrod Hendricks, the Ripkens and Jeff Ballard still around. Feels right, he said. Very right.

He gave up a single to start the ninth, but then struck out the next two batters, semi-someones named Jerry Goff and Mel Houston. Goff went on three pitches, Houston on another curve, running the total to seven strikeouts out of a possible eight outs.

The next batter bounced to third, which should have been the end, but the play got fouled up and then someone hit a triple and a couple of runs scored. But it couldn't spoil the impression. In the grandstand sat Roland Hemond, the Orioles' general manager, watching intently. "Mike just looks super," Hemond said. "Oh, yes."

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