For the last fortnight, Hank Peters has stayed awake deep into the early morning hours, sometimes past 3 a.m., pondering his perplexing Baltimore team.

"I'm savoring all this winning while it lasts," said the general manager whose Orioles are baseball's hottest item after winning 13 of their last 14 games.

"But, frankly, it's still confusing to me. I don't understand our first month of the season at all. I don't know what to make of us."

Many Bird watchers share Peters' quandary.

The O's are, in theory, a team built on the soundest and simplest of baseball precepts - pitching, defense, home runs and brains.

Yet, in practice, during Peters' four years at the helm, the club has been widly streaky.

"I hear those West Coast games of ours on the radio until after one o'clock, then I churn in bed," said Peters. "Listening to something without seeing it seems to stir up your imagination.

"If we were losing, maybe I could roll over and go to sleep. But winning's worse. It excites you and confuses you."

That Oriole mixture of hopeful palpitation and dreary premonition will be particularly strong as the Birds, returning from an 8-1 road trip, begin a 10-game home stand Friday night against West power California.

Any Oriole follower who does not sense an approaching crisis has no feeling for history. This all happened before - last season.

Last June, the Birds won 17 of 18 (including 13 in a row) - feasting on the same California-Seattle-Oakland diet in 15 of those games. Then they met nemeses Boston and Toronto - and lost eight straight, effectively killing their season.

The Birds spent the winter praying for a chance at atonement, remembering particularly a 24-10 loss to Toronto.

Now the wheel has turned. The Birds have their chance. This home stand includes seven games with those Seattle and Oakland patsies. What comes next? You guessed it - 10 games with Boston and Toronto.

Does this season's binge mean any more than last year's? Are these '79 Birds headed for the World Series or fourth place again?

To look forward, let us first look back at the last two weeks. Just 14 days ago, the O's were in last place, losers of six straight. "Our guys can't pitch, they can't hit and they can't field," stormed Peters. "It's horrendous."

Now, the Birds are in first place - a perch they never climbed within four games of last year. The O's spurt toward contention has come exactly six weeks sooner.

"Just two weeks ago, people demanded when we were going to make a trade," Peters says, laughing. "Now, they say, 'Don't make any hasty moves. What do you want? You've got everything.'"

That is the principal difference between the Orioles of '78 and those of '79. Nobody ever became giddy enough last year to suggest that the Birds were close to having "everything."

Manager Earl Weaver tells a continual half-truth with his constant pronouncement that, "You're never as good as you look when you're winning or as bad as when you're losing."

More to the point, Series-bound teams look dangerous even when they are losing, then become overpowering when they are winning.

By that standard, Baltimore may have have reached a halfway mark. When the Birds go bad, they still look pathetic.

"When we don't hit, everybody panics," said pitcher Jim Palmer. But for the last two weeks, as they have outscored their foes by an astronomical 90-40, the O's have been powerful as a champion.

Last year's Bird 13-game win streak featured six one-run-games - the proof that the O's needed every edge to win. This year's 14-game rampage had only one.

"I like that," said Weaver yesterday. "It proves that against mediocre pitching, we can just crush people. That's new."

Or rahter, it's old. That was the hallmark of Weaver's '69-through-'71 teams that went to the World Series.

No streak could be simpler to explain than Baltimore's current eruption. The Birds' key players - their stars - all started the year in slumps, then all woke up together. Slumps and streaks are contagious diseases that run through teams.

The turnabout of five Orioles transformed the club. The heart of the batting order - the second, third and fourth hitters - have gone from abysmal to spectacular. Rich Dauer's average has jumped from .111 to .325, Ken Singleton's from .214 to .337 and Eddie Murray's from .179 to .312 in the last 14 games.

"A team needs a 'bat leader' to get to a Series, just as it needs a pitching leader," said Peters, "Singleton is capable of doing that."

Already, the O's are calling Singleton, with eight home runs in his last 13 games, a new name: Homerton.

Mike Flanagan and Dennis Martinez are battling to see who will be that "pitching leader" now that Jim Palmer, with his perpetually aching back, may no longer be the team's ace.

Flanagan and Martinez, both with ERAs under 2.00 in their last three starts, have helped the O's build a 2.50 team ERA in their last 14 games, compared with 5.10 before that.

"Palmer may have to learn to pitch with some pain," said Peters, Palmer's bete noire. "It appears he isn't going to hurt his back any further by pitching. It's a condition he'll have to live with. On the other hand we have to realize that there will be days when it hurts Jim so much he just can't go. We'll have to understand that."

Palmer, who pitches tonight, has worked out a new lower kick windup to try and ease his discomfort. No one knows, or has ever known, how much of Palmer's persistent anguish is ruffled temperament. In crucial games, during pennant races, he somehow always seems to get well - and pitch superbly.

Vastly more serious to the O's are the state of Doug DeCinces' back (disabled list until May 21) and Scott McGregor's sore arm. Ironically, the Birds are so deep in starting pitching that they might never miss 18-20 career hurler McGregor. The O's might actually be better without him.

If DeCines requires surgery - and both Peters and Weaver mentioned the word nervously yesterday - all Oriole plans would change.

DeCinces, the AL's 3 slugger in '78 will visit four doctors this weekend. "We're going to be cautious, hold our breath, not make any trades until we find out what the true physical conditions of DeCinces, Palmer and McGregor are," said Peters. "We expect they'll all be okay."

Until that positive prognosis arrives, Peters, like many a nervous Oriole fan, may have trouble sleeping nights, no matter how long the Birds' current feast of victory lasts.