The last thing a struggling baseball team needs is to run into a hot team and, even worse, a hot pitcher.

The Baltimore Orioles ran into both tonight. The team was the Kansas City Royals. The pitchers was Dennis Leonard.

The combination resulted in a 3.2 Kansas City victory, the Royals' 10th straight and the Orioles' fifth loss in six contests. The loss left Baltimore in third place, four games behind the Yankees and one behind the Red Sox in the American League's East Division.

Leonard, almost knocked out in the second inning, finished with a six-hitter after retiring the last 16 batters and 20 of the last 21.

But just as important in the Royal victory, witnessed by 21,311 fans, was pitching coach Galen Cisco. It was Cisco who sat Leonard down after the second inning and pointed out that he was lifting his head when he pushed off.

The Orioles built their 2-1 lead on run-scoring singles in the second by Belanger and Dave Skaggs. The threat ended when Belanger failed to bowl over catcher Darrel Porter while attempting to score on Al Bumbry's liner that was caught by McRae.

"My pitches were getting up and they were leaning on them." Leonard, now 14-10, said in the Kansas City locker room. "Galen told me I was raring back and getting my head up. After that I just concentrated on staying down."

His concentration paid off. His teammates, trailing 2-1 after Leonard's rocky second inning, got the runs back from Jim Palmer in the third and then watched their pitcher work.

"Hey. I thought we were lucky to get two runs off him the way he was throwing tonight," Oriole manager Earl Weaver said. "I think we were lucky to get the two when we did. He had great stuff."

Leonard was not the only pitcher with good stuff. Palmer, whose record fell to 13-11, also pitched well, but in his words, "not enough."

The third inning was his downfall. Left fielder Hal McRae, who had saved a run with a perfect throw to the plate to cut down Mark Belanger in the second, led off with his 17th home run, a towering drive into the leftfield bleachers.

"Only bad pitch I threw all night," Palmer said. "A hanging curve." It was the 23rd home run pitch Palmer has thrown this season. That's the most in the league.

George Brett and Al Cowens followed McRae with solid singles and Brett scored when John Mayberry grounded into a double play. That proved to be the winning run.

Palmer, who has complained about the way he has been used and has feuded with Weaver on and off all season, clearly was upset with someone after the game.

"I'm not very happy about it," he snapped when asked about his current slump - one victory in six starts. "I'll pitch well when my arms gets better."

He did not explain that comment. He stalked off instead to the safety to the trainers' room.

"He's pitching just fine," Weaver said. "He's pitched well all year. He says his arm's hurt, his arm's hurt. But he threw well tonight, just like he's done all year."

Leonard threw better. The 25-year-old reighthander had a 4-8 mark on June 20. Because he was struggling he decided to go along with Cisco's suggestion to try throwing a slider. That turned things around.

"I've been trying to get him to throw a slider since last season," Cisco said, "but he wasn't interested then because he was pitching well. This year when he was going bad he decided to try it. It's given him a strikeout pitch."