True, it was just one game of 162, statistically irrelevant. And true, it was in the beginning of June, long before anyone but a pinhead or a political columnist would take the pennant races seriously. But the Washington Senators had just climbed to .500 for the first time since May 4, and they had RFK jammed with 42,000 people screaming for them to beat the Baltimore Orioles. Win one in circumstances like that and who knows what dreamy notions are possible. "The tension was so thick you could cut it with the ax they used on Joan Rivers," said Oscar Madison, adding with disgust, "That's more than you could say for the meat they brought into the clubhouse. Can we talk? What does Tang Ye-lin look for in a caterer -- someone who did time for arson?"

Players know which games are more equal than others. They know which games testify to a team's character. "This is our first real test," Elliott Suskind, the general manager, said apprehensively before the game.

Baltimore won, 22-0.

"I suspect we failed," Suskind said. "But I'm waiting to see if the teacher grades on a curve."

The Senators' loss literally couldn't have happened at a worse time: The game ended at 11:01 p.m., and with local TV crews from 4, 7 and 9 at RFK ready to go live, the debacle was the lead story on all three channels. On 4, First Nighter Arch Campbell, wearing a tux, played a laugh track over videotape of six Senators pitchers being removed from the game -- not to mention designated hitter Bad Dude Harding, who hurled the eighth and ninth, the first time he'd pitched since the Attica All-Stars played the Chuck Colson Comanches to benefit White Collar Convicts for Christ in 1978. On 7, Frank Herzog interviewed Marion Barry, who'd taken model Grace Shell's 3-year-old son to the game. "Everyone talks about my aides going to jail," the mayor said. "But how do some of these pitchers stay out?" On 9, Glenn Brenner stood in the Senators' dugout with a paper bag over his head and asked John Doe what went wrong. Doe couldn't remember. Back in the studio, a laughing Gordon Peterson told Brenner to ask Gabeen Mfoom to recommend an Ethiopian restaurant. "What does that guy know about food?" Brenner cracked. "He's so skinny I can use him as a 2-iron."

The mocking tone of the coverage infuriated Tang Ye-lin, who monitored all three channels from RFK's Lombardi Room. "We look like fools," Tang thundered. "I hate that. I won't tolerate it." He dialed Major Banks on the hot-line phone. When Banks didn't answer, Tang tried the walkie-talkie. "He'd better not be ignoring me," Tang said threateningly. "He's skating on thin ice as it is. I can get Billy Martin in a New York minute. I've got the number of his bail bondsman right here."

The uneasiness between owner and manager is just one of the many stains on the Senators' carpet that winning had helped obscure. Perhaps it took a devastating loss like this to bring these discolorations into plain sight. Other than Sonny Doyle, who's been pitching in hard luck -- and may soon be pitching in Chattanooga -- the starting pitching has been laudable. But the bullpen has collapsed like the New York State Thruway. Dean Hines (6.38 ERA), Little Stevie Ruffin (5.20 ERA), Bahloo Sadir (4.95 ERA) and Walid Sadir (0-4 and 11.72 ERA in his last four appearances) haven't saved a game for a starter in two weeks. "Those guys can't get anyone out," conceded pitching coach Mark Amsterdam. "The other night, Walid had the flu and actually blew his beets right there on the mound. I told Major Banks, 'That's the best stuff he's tossed all week.' "

Nor has the bench been helpful. Shaky Faloon has missed seven of the last 10 games with what team physician Dr. Samuel Shem calls "either sheer, unmitigated terror or the best impersonation of Don Knotts I've ever seen." In Faloon's place, Tony Cadenza went 2 for 31. "I've been looking at films, and I think I've found a slight flaw in my stance," Cadenza said hopefully. One teammate said the last time he saw a stance like Cadenza's was the horse's in "Cat Ballou." Another disappointing sub is Gabeen Mfoom, who has now been caught stealing six times in a row. "After three times, they sent me away for 14 years," twinkled Bad Dude Harding.

Various off-the-field relationships are impacting negatively on key players: Sonny Doyle and Orlando Jones haven't spoken to each other since their wives duked it out in the stands. Lillian Ginzburg has thrown Stun Gun out of their Cleveland Park colonial and written a piece for Cosmo called "Who to Shoot When Your Husband's Fooling Around on the Road." Windy Jackson outraged the Holy Trinity infielders -- they considered it blasphemy -- by bringing an anatomically correct Pat Boone doll into the locker room and performing voodoo rituals on it. Perhaps worst of all, Little Stevie Ruffin refuses to talk to Frank. "I'm stumped on how to help," said Dr. Shem. "I don't have any literature on somebody not talking to his arm anymore -- so few people converse with their arms to begin with."

Then there are the usual problems that have vexed the Senators all season: The Sadir brothers are still being strip-searched in airports. Sonny and Pappy Doyle are still searching for a Georgetown bar with Slim Jims and pickled eggs. John Doe still feels anxious about who he is and where he's going. "Johnny's so confused he makes Hamlet look like General Patton," said Oscar Madison. And Danny Broccoli is still pursuing his lawsuit against the Southland Corp. for barring him from all 7-Elevens because they found him, according to court papers, "precisely the kind of element we're seeking to avoid."

Taken separately, none of these problems is insurmountable. ("Particularly Broccoli's problem," said GM Suskind. "I mean, honestly, if he moved into your neighborhood, how long would it take you to put your house up for sale?") But taken together, they represent a serious mountain for these Senators to climb. Sometimes a team finds its identity in the way it responds to a disastrous performance like the Senators had against the Orioles. If it falters, it's often because there was no real commitment of caring between the players. There's a famous line from the comic strip "Pogo" that goes: "We have met the enemy, and he is us." On the other hand, the Oakland A's in the early 1970s hated one another's guts, and they won three World Series in a row. So if you're the manager, who would you rather have in the batter's box with two out in the bottom of the ninth, Pogo or Reggie? ::

SENATORS STUFF: In honor of Times Beach, Mo.'s favorite son, third base coach Conan Barbario, Senators had "Radioactive Fan Appreciation Night." Lucky couple got one weekend at Three Mile Island . . . PR honchette Bobbi Fleckman still angry over last week's story giving poop on Senators' wives, insists entire conversation was off record. In related matter, Lillian Ginzburg sued Stun Gun for divorce, named Fleckman corespondent . . . Female attendance at Senators' home games significantly lower since Oscar Madison was threatened with exile. Madison hoping Tang Ye-lin will either reconsider or "drop dead at high noon at the corner of Connecticut and K" . . . Jonathan Van Dorn considering not pitching against Tigers to show solidarity with animal rights leaguers . . . Bahloo Sadir bought armor-plated stretch limo, with TOW missile launch option, for "winter ski trip to Beirut" . . . Gene McSparron's ex-wife, Belinda, in news this week for setting single-day charge card record (non-Gulf-oil-states division) at I. Magnin in Beverly Hills. Among items purchased: diamond-studded litter box and 24-carat-gold green card for her maid . . . Reaganaut Tang Ye-lin had Bud McFarlane as his guest for recent series against Detroit. First 2,000 people to contribute funds to contras were given actual paper shredded by Ollie North and Fawn Hall. ::