The brace on Mike Flanagan's left knee looks like Frankenstein's truss. It weighs only four pounds, but it goes from hip to lower calf and is a constant reminder to the Baltimore left-hander of all the pain he's been through this season and all the risks he's taking every time he tries to help pitch his team to a pennant.
"If the brace locks up and they have to come out to oil me down, does that count as a trip (to the mound)?" he said, joking. "Call me 'Oil Can' Flanagan." But these are serious days for him.
This afternoon before 30,922 fans in Memorial Stadium, Flanagan (8-3) beat the Minnesota Twins for the 13th consecutive time, throwing 88 pitches and leaving after six innings with a 5-4 lead that later grew into an 11-4 victory. Not one of the 25 Twins here today was on the Minnesota club the last time it beat Flanagan, way back in 1977.
Nonetheless, the Flanagan who defeated the Twins today for the Orioles' fifth consecutive victory was not the same overpowering Cy Young winner of past years. This humid afternoon, Flanagan pitched like a 40-year-old, nibbling at corners, changing speeds, tossing rainbow curves and trying to get sluggers to chase sinkers at the shins.
"Maybe I've just expected too much," he said. "My first three starts back (after missing 15 with a partially torn ligament) I felt like I'd never been away. In Chicago, where I never pitch well, they didn't get an earned run in six innings. In Texas (where he went nine and won) I had the best curveball I've had in two years.
"But the last two times out, I've had the blahs. Rabbit called it (referring to Coach Ray Miller). He told me I'd feel great, then have three or four flat starts, just like you do in spring training. Maybe I was too pig-headed to believe it . . . I needed one of these (a high-scoring victory) to feel like I can win again."
Flanagan estimates his left knee strength at 85 percent and is obviously afraid of any sudden move. His fielding has been poor and tentative.
On one hand, Flanagan's injury has reinforced his sense of his own health and good luck. "When I see the other people in therapy (at the hospital) with me, I'm not hurt at all, by comparison."
On the other hand, Flanagan knows the danger of any pitcher with a bad leg trying to be a hero in a pennant race. More than one man has ruined his career in such situations. Will opponents bunt on him? Will his team ask him to push himself to the limits of common sense, not knowing precisely what those are?
"Come on, you know the answer," Flanagan said, quietly. "The game has no heart."