At this moment a year ago, Dave Skaggs was in Florida, in the lowest form of pro basketball, the Instructional League; Eddie Murray was relaxing at his California home and Dennis Martinez, Rich Dauer and Andres Mora were unfamilar faces on the Baltimore Oriole bench.

That all of them would grace the Orioles' full-session roster some day was not an unrealistic notion. No rational thinker, however, would have expected them to be major reasons for the Orioles being in the thick of a pennant race this very evening.

It still is possible that the Orioles will finish this season in exactly the same position as last season, 10 1/2 games behind the Yankees. It also is possible they will overtake the Yanks and win the American League East championship - and absolutely no one was talking in such terms before the season began.

The Paupers vs. the Pampered is what the Baltimore-New York matchup seemed, for while the Yanks were adding Reggie Jackson, Don Gullett and Bucky Dent, the Orioles were losing Reggie, Bobby Grich and Wayne Garland.

The conventional thought in March was that the Birds had been shot dead by thousand-dollar bills instead of the usual pellets, that they would quickly and quietly fade to the bottom of the standings and possibly outdraw the Mandel trial now and then.

Even the star pitcher, Jim Palmer, was publicly moaning about the Orioles' fate. Management was keeping stiff upper lip, in fact insisting that such as Dauer, Murray and Mora would be more than useful. To which Palmer, in his fashion, was saying, "Ain't no way."

Ironically, and a fact not forgotten by several teammates, the Orioles remain in contention despite Palmer-like season. The rest of the traditional Oriole core, Ken Singleton and Lee May, has been as productive as ever - and the once-anonymous faces have been pushing their way forward for recognition.

"Yes, I expected to be with the big club this year," said catcher Skaggs, whose .338 pace since July 25 has lifted his seasonal batting average above .295. "They told me they planned to do something with one of the catchers they had last year."

"No, I guess I didn't expect to be here," said Murray, the prime candidate for rookie of the year honors with 22 home runs and 150 hits. "I knew they were thinking about sending me back to Rochester."

Mora has averaged an RBI for every five official at-bats, Dauer has hit nearly .280 after a 1-for-42 start at the plate adn Martinez and another young surprise. Mike Flanagan, have combined for 26 victories.

And Singleton is having a sensational season, with one statistic even more impressive than his .335 average, 165 hits, 101 walks played, he has reached base in 132.

All of the new young players who have made a significant impact on the Orioles have not come for even a peck of money but through the traditionally thorough and productive scouting system.

Dauer was a first-round draft choice in '74, Murray a third-round in '73, Skaggs a sixth-rounder in '69, Flanagan a fifth-rounder in '73, Martinez a free agent in '73 and Mora from the Mexican League two years ago.

"I started to feel confident, like I belong here, after the last Yankee series," Skaggs said. "I'd always felt anxious before, like on Monday night TV games, and even before we played the Yanks.

"Now I do not feel out of place. I feel good."

Still, he does not have a major-league homer as yet, and his teammates, especially Singleton and May, are not bashful about reminding him - with smiles on their faces all the while.

Nearly two hours before the Orioles-Blue Jays game Monday, Skaggs smacked a ball 15 rows into the left-field stands. There was much celebration and May said:

"What time must this be?"

"It must be BP," said Singleton. "Hey, how about running one out of here to win us the game tonight?"

That was possible in the bottom of the ninth. With Murray on second and Mora on first, Skaggs came to the plate with two out and the Orioles trailing by two runs. He had hit the first pitch two earlier times - for outs - but got a 3-1 count on Jerry Garvin this time, only to miss the next two pitches.

"Garvin keeps the ball down the first three times to Skaggs," a frustrated manager, Earl Weaver, said after the loss, "and the fourth time he keeps it up. He's like Mike Cuellar used to be with us. In and up and then low, slow and slower and then a high fast ball. He had a lot of guys screaming on the way back to the dugout.

"Now we're running out of days to win this thing, three games back in the loss column and the Yanks with only 11 games left." In some ways, however, the Orioles might well be just starting to show the sporting world that success can be bought with relatively empty wallet.