It would be nice to say that Mike Flanagan began his comeback here Wednesday night by striking out the side in the first inning.

It would be cheery, if unrealistic, to hope the Baltimore Oriole might pitch shutout ball for the Class A Hagerstown Suns, allow maybe one scratch hit and, all in all, look overpowering.

Of course, that never happens in real life. When you're 33 years old and snap your Achilles' tendon, you're never the same. No one ever has been.

And, on top of that, when you've already spent the previous five seasons fighting for your career against one nasty knee, shoulder, arm or ankle injury after another, it's too much to hope you could ever hope to reclaim your old Cy Young form.

It might be too much to hope.

But Wednesday night it happened.

Yes, Earl, help is on the way.

When he hurt his left heel in a fluke basketball accident on Jan. 23, many, including Flanagan, feared his career as a front-line starter might be finished. Few thought he'd be back this season. Nobody, certainly not Flanagan, thought the injury could be a disguised blessing.

Now, that's conceivable.

"The prodigal son returns," Flanagan said, laughing, long before the game.

"I feel great . . . the best I've felt since I don't know when . . . It's like a new lease on life, a second chance," said the normally phlegmatic veteran.

"I could never catch up on all my (various) rehabilitations before. Now, there's no tellin' how long I'll pitch . . . It's changed my whole outlook completely."

Wednesday evening, Flanagan worked six innings against the Kinston Blue Jays, threw 85 pitches, allowed one dribble hit to shortstop, walked four and struck out five, including those first three he faced.

Afterward, Flanagan felt so strong he threw 25 more pitches. He said that, after another start for the Suns on Monday at Prince William, he can't wait to get hold of the American League.

"I've got a couple of more mph on my fast ball than I've had in years. Catchers have been saying, 'I don't remember you throwing that hard,' and I think they're right. The curve ball's sharper, my control's better, the ball's moving more . . . I'm very optimistic. I think I can power pitch again and I never thought I'd say that," said Flanagan before his return outing.

Afterward, he amended that: "It was even more than I hoped for."

It's more like what the Orioles have prayed for. With Nate Snell on the disabled list, the Orioles don't have a pitcher with an ERA under 4.00.

"Some of the (Orioles) have been calling me Steve Carlton because he (lost 20 games and) went on a rigorous training program at about this age. He turned his career around. It's opened my eyes to what you can do," says Flanagan, who had 3 1/2-hour workouts five times a week for four months, plus extra running and drills in recent weeks.

"It seemed like every injury took something away from me permanently. With my shoulder, I couldn't help saying 'It's never going to be the same again.' Now, I see graphs that don't lie. I've broken all kinds of records down at the rehab center. On every exercise I'll just say, 'What's the best anybody's ever done on this machine?' and then I'll break it or even double it . . .

"My spirit has been rejuvenated."

Flanagan's spirits have risen and plummeted so often in his career that it seems hard to believe he could be cruelly disappointed again.

When Orioles General Manager Hank Peters first heard of Flanagan's injury, he said, "I can't think of anyone who has ever had worse luck than Mike . . . I talked to him and told him, 'God has smiled on you many times, but, boy, He sure has kicked you in the butt, too.' "

Is it pure Pollyanna to think the last six months may be a sort of overdue compensation?

"At first, everybody said, 'See you next spring.' All the doctors tried to remember a successful recovery and they'd say, 'No, he didn't come back and that other guy . . . No, not him, either.'

"My first goal was just to be able to walk again. Then, I thought, 'You better do this (regimen) or you'll never pitch again.' "

At one point, Flanagan was told he could start pitching while standing waist deep in a swimming pool. "Naturally, Rick Dempsey said, 'I'll catch you. I can squat underwater,' " says Flanagan. "We were the best battery in the league below sea level.

"I like pitching in a pool. I can hold runners better. They can't seem to get a jump. And I have great motion on my change-up."

This, of course, is pure Flanagan spoof. He never fooled around with that goofy advice about pitching in any pool. But his underwater routine shows why his mates have missed him so much.

"There were times when guys would say, 'Come on, go on this road trip with us.' I'd ask them, 'You want me to pitch for this team or be a cheerleader?' "

The Orioles need both from Flanagan. With Ken Singleton, Jim Palmer, John Lowenstein, Steve Stone and coach Ray Miller all gone, Flanagan and Earl Weaver are the only cracklingly bright minds left from what once probably was the wittiest, smartest clubhouse in baseball.

"My one goal was to run out there tonight with no brace, no tape, nothing," said Flanagan, "and I did it . . . I forgot completely about the heel, didn't hold back or favor it . . .

"I wanted to live through the experience . . . not get hit by a line drive or get in a collision at first base . . . but it worked out better than that."

Flanagan's only surprise of the evening was that, in A ball, you only get five warmup pitches between innings, not eight. "It threw me off. Three of my (four) walks were to leadoff men . . . I told the home plate ump, 'I got too many pitches for this league.' "

True to form, Flanagan was back in all ways. Asked what was most important to him about his comeback, Flanagan thought back to the Orioles' fall tour of Japan and said, deadpan, "I didn't want my last inning to be in Nagasaki."