The Baltimore Orioles, so splendidly gritty during their months of victory, continued to look limp and pluckable during the August of anxiety as they lost quietly to the Kansas City Royals tonight, 7-1.
"You try not to think about games like that," said loser Jim Palmer who, in his first start since July 1, was beaten more by his mates' gloves than by Royals' bats.
The key word in Palmer's analysis if "try."
The Birds, their lead still four games over Boston after the Red Sox lost to Chicago, 4-1, must try to forget that over the last five games their team batting average is .117. They have 19 hits in 51 innings.
They must try to erase the memory of seven losses in 11 games, the latest tonight to a rookie right-hander -- Craig Chamberlain -- who was making only his second big league start.
Even worse than the thought of their sad fielding this week, the Birds must try to forget how unimposing the wild and rusty Palmer looked tonight before 29,384 fans. He was kayoed by four runs (all tainted) in 3 2/3 innings and only 61 pitches.
Many a team would look at recent events as cause for serious worry. Manager Earl Weaver sees hostile umpires under his bed. Every Oriole slugger is in a deep slump. A certain carelessness is creeping into the edges of the O's play.
And now Palmer, the ace in the hole who has said he was merely resting his moderately injured arm so that he might give the club a lift down the stretch, looks like he needs a second spring training to find his old groove.
Despite all this, the Birds chirp almost merrily. And with reason.
"I felt no pain. That's the main thing," said Palmer, looking unruffled by three misplays that led to all four runs off him. "And I had pretty good stuff."
"There's nothing to worry about," said Ken Singleton, who knocked his 30th homer of the year into the left-field bullpen to snap an 0-for-16 and 1-for-24 drought.
"Jim threw well, and you know if he's healthy enough to go out there, he's going to win."
"Just another example of our perfect timing this season," said starter Mike Falangan. "Our (six) games with Boston start in two weeks, and by then, we'll be straightened out."
The O's thought that their problem was southpaws, who had dealt them eight of their previous 11 losses. Tonight, they learned the sad truth -- either arm will do.
Chamberlain offered nothing special -- a decent fast ball, good control and some poise. Yet the O's could manage only three hits -- one a dribbler -- against a 22-year-old in his first pro season who had to labor through 131 pitches.
The O's got a man past first base only in one inning. Nevertheless, the O's and Palmer might have entered the fifth inning with a 1-0 lead, instead of a 4-1 deficit, if they hadn't made a comdey of simple plays.
The crowd greeted Palmer with mixed cheers and boos, until the loyalists in Section 34 drowned out the Boo Birds with chants of "Palmer-Palmer-Palmer." The turnout put the club on the verge of an all-time attendance record, which is expected to be set Saturday night.
The right-hander, whose motives have been questioned during his six-week sabbatical with "mild tendinitis" of the elbow, fanned the first two Royals with magnificent fall-off-the-table curves set up by fast balls.
Then things started going downhill. In the second inning, left-fielder Pat Kelly, the man who once made Palmer yank himself from a game because of sheer aggravation, played a routine sliced double into the corner by Darrell Porter into a triple.
Eddie Murray, the evening's No. 1 culprit, then failed to get a sharp Clint Hurdle grounder out of his big glove in time to throw out Porter at the plate on an easy play.
On the other hand, considering what Murray did in the fourth with the bases loaded when he did get the ball in his hand, perhaps it was a blessing.
After grabbing Jamie Quirk's one-hopper, Murray fired the ball in the dirt 10 feet in front of Dempsay at the plate. The catcher, instead of blocking the ball for the second out, tried for a first-baseman's scoop that might have let to a first-to-home-to-first double play.
Bad gamble. The ball skidded to the box-seat railing and two runs scored. When Frank White followed with a fly out that should have ended a scoreless inning, it was, instead, a run-scoring sacrifice fly. One hitter later, Palmer was gone.
Sammy Stewart, whose wife delivered their first child -- a son Solin Timothy at 1:50 p.m. yesterday -- pitched excellent shutout relief until the ninth. The strain of the day then took its toll and Stewart dished up a three-run, game-icing homer to Porter.
The disquieting images that will remain from this game, however, were not the O's anemic swings. Bird bats will reawaken, eventually. Nor were a few fielding blunders a significant long-range omen.
The lean and classic Palmer, a picture of worry and uncertainty on the mound, was a different story. His work was absolutely indeterminate -- he could be one start away from a shutout or a return to the disabled list.
His manner, unfortunately, was unmistakable. He was the frustrated and fidgety Palmer -- moving outfielders, changing balls, constantly trying to loosen his stiff shoulder -- who seems to send a tremor of impending doom throughout his team.
It would be hard to imagine a pitcher more out of step with his team's style than this traumatized star.
If the Orioles are looking to Palmer for a seasoned old hand to steady them through the brutal weeks ahead, they may have picked the wrong man at the wrong time in his career.
And Weaver seems to know it.
"I don't know when I'll be able to get another start for Jim," said Weaver bluntly. "The way the other four guys in the rotation so will determine it, not primarily how Jim's arm feels."
Even in the midst of the O's worst jittery spell of the season those are bad words for the Red Sox, a team so bereft of pitching that they have handed a regular starting job to a rookie, Mike Proly, who never pitched in the majors until this week.
In New England, Weaver's words tonight would seem halucinatory: "For now, I'll try to find a way to spot-start Palmer, if we can find a place for him. In late September, we may just go with out best three."
At the moment, one of the greatest pitchers in history is not among that number.