The most bizarre hallmark of Mike Flanagan's style is that when he is pitching best he gets by line drives.
So, perhaps the best sign of this dispiriting season for Flanagan came here on Friday when a liner flicked his ear as it sped into center field.
"I've been trying to ignore the hitter, block him out like I used to," he said. "I was concentrating on the catcher's mitt so hard that I didn't realize the ball never got to the glove. That's when the liner grazed my ear.
"I like the theory," he said, "but it needs refining."
The fondest hope in Birdland these days is that the Baltimore Oriole southpaw is regaining the fierce tunnel-vision concentration that marked his Cy Young Award season in 1979 and has always earned him a collection of welts on his legs and ankles from smashes he could not avoid.
"Way to battle 'em," said coach Elrod Hendricks to Flanagan after he five-hit Minnesota on Friday, fighting out of a man-on-third, one-out jam in the ninth to win, 3-2, for his third consecutive victory.
That battling -- the byproduct of concentration -- has always been Flanagan's signature on the mound. The appearance of competitiveness is not really a character trait as much as a result of a player's depth of mental focus.
For five months, Flanaga has struggled with his windup, his rhythm, his hanging curve, his spotty control, his sore shoulder, his family misfortunes and his pitch selection.
All this created an eggshell-thin membrane of concentration around Flanagan that was easily shattered by a fluke hit, a bad call or bad bounce. Anything could undo him, just as, once, he seemed impervious to everything.
The step from loss of concentration to loss of confidence is a disastrous one, but easily made. Flanagan was close to taking it.
"Last year, people came to me because I was so positive, so locked into what I was doing. I gave the advice," said Flanagan. "This year, I've been the one asking for help."
Gradually, Flanagan has been eliminating, or blocking out, his troubles, one by one.
"It's gone from me worrying about me on the mound," he said, "to me worrying about the plate and what's going on down there. The problem is out in front of me now, where it ought to be.
"Instead of thinking about my mechanics, or whether my shoulder hurts, or if we've called the right pitch, I'm starting to throw to the catcher as though we were still on the sidelines warming up.
"That's where I've pitched best this year," said Flanagan ruefully. "On the sidelines warming up."
Flanagan is far from being out of the woods. In fact, he's probably lucky to be 11-8, only two games worse than he was last season (13-6) after 23 starts.
"It shows Mike's character that he's only one win away from a .600 record after all that's happened to him this year," said lefty Scott McGregor protectively, the O's Dr. Small diagnosing Dr. Large.
"He's had bad luck and no runs to work with all year," said McGregor.
In fact, Flanagan has been involved in 11 one-run decisions (7-4 record), including seven 3-2 games (4-3). He has had little opportunity to relax or experiment in a season in which he has desperately needed to do both.
Flanagan's spring training had a pall cast over it by his wife's second miscarriage in five months -- he left one game in the first inning to rush to the hospital. The euphemism "personal problems" would be mild for the depression that the Flanagans have struggled through together.
The players' strike in spring training further set back Flanagan's conditioning program. A lingering soreness in the front of his shoulder, which has recently subsided, was the residue of his blown-to-smithereens spring.
Yet Flanagan has not missed a start -- 130 straight over four seasons -- since he made the Oriole rotation. In 100 decisions in that span, Flanagan is 66-34; no pitcher in baseball has more wins in that period, although Tommy John and Ron Guildry each have exactly as many.
Despite that record, Flanagan has worried almost like a rookie this year. Was he throwing too many changeups? Was his delivery to fast or too slow? Were all those two-out or two-strike run-scoring hits just bad luck or were they the manifestation of his own bad management?
"Everything in this game is such a fine line, a tiny edge," said Flanagan. "I went to Steve Stone, because he's in such a good frame of mind, to talk about positive thinking. He suggested pretending the hitter didn't exist. It's helped."
Ironically, it was at almost the identical date a year ago that Flanagan was struggling -- with a 4.05 ERA, a 10-6 record and 130 hits allowed in 124 innings at the All-Star break -- that he went to McGregor for advice.
McGregor taught him a changeup that freshened Flanagan's confidence and he turned a mediocre year into a great one with a 13-3 record and 2.22 ERA in his last 18 starts. y
This year, Flanagan was 8-8 with a 4.04 ERA when he went to Stone for his pep talk on meditation and concentration. Since then, he is 3-0 in four starts, his longest streak of '80.
Nonetheless, Flanagan is far from the radiantly poised and optismistic fellow of a year ago. hitters to lead off the third inning. "Inexcusable," he said.
The next hitter obliged with a double-play grounder. But then that lapse of intensity returned as the next three pitches produced a ringing RBI double and single.
"It was the season in a nutshell," Flanagan said disguestedly. "Two outs, almost out of the inning, and the roof falls in. The opposite of how I've always been."
Then, in the ninth, leading 3-2, the bad dreams started again: a leadoff double, a long fly to advance the runner and Earl Weaver coming to the hill.
"I couldn't help thinking, 'Here we go again,'" said Flanagan. "If the next hitter had gotten a handle hit, it would have been exactly like my whole year."
Instead, Flanagan struck out Dave Edwards for the fourth time in the game, then got the last out on the next pitch.
"That's the first time this year I've had the game on the line and done something dramatically good," said Flanagan. "It really made me feel fine.I'd take 15 more starts this year just like that one."
So would the Orioles who, by playing 28-14 ball for the past six excellent weeks, have crept up to the third-best winning percentage in baseball (.560) -- better than any National League team.
However, the Birds know that three-quarters of their starting rotation -- the team's core -- is already producing as much, or more, than can be reasonably expected.
A Flanagan closing kick offers the best hope of the sort of .700 finish in August and September that would probably be necessary to force a nip-and-tuck race with New York. Even the O's don't yet predict such things.
Flanagan's locker has been a bit of depression area all season. His usual supply of puns, with and outrageous plays-on-words has been muted by his problems.
Were Flanagan his true self, he might say that he has gone from Cy Young to Sigh Jung, since he has spent the year "sighing" over his misfortune and moping about the mound at times like a hurler in need of a pitching shrink.
Finally, on Friday night in the ninth, he looked exactly like himself once more.
If Mike Flanagan has rediscovered that hypnotic trance that has always made him impervious to everything -- even the missiles that zoom past his ear -- then the Orioles can dream of focusing their concentration once more on a familiar target: first place.