The first three weeks of August have put the Baltimore Orioles through the emotional wringer that awaits any team that dares to play .732 baseball for 97 consecutive games.

And that is the way baseball fans want it -- not Bird fans, perhaps, but baseball fans.

Now the O's, perhaps the most likable underdogs since the Mets of '69, seem certain of a trial by September fire.

The experience may not be as giddy as the 71-24 blitz that brought them to prominence, but it will reveal far more.

Will the O's, now that they are "out of heat," in Boston Manager Don Zimmer's words, be able to muster forces for a pennant drive that does credit to their talents?

Or, like the '78 Bosox, will they make the worst of hard times and turn a summer of glory into a fall of disgust?

In their last 15 games the O's have suffered more than just their nine defeats. They have felt the first hints of the torment that comes with brutal defeats down the stretch.

Just as the Birds won with a touch of magic for four months, they have been losing with an aroma of witch's brew in the air in recent days.

First, Bobby Murcer, who had driven in five runs all season, drove in five in one game to beat Baltimore, 5-4, on the day that Murcer delivered his eulogy at Thurman Munson's funeral. No one could begrudge the Yankee his testimonial.

But then strange things started happening. After going 109 games with only one last-inning lead being blown, the O's suddenly started a 17-game home stand by blowing their second last-frame lead in two nights.

The mischief escalated when a Chicago rookie southpaw pitched a shutout. That started a streak of five straight games in which five lefty starters held the O's to a team batting average of .117.

The Birds, who had shown no specific weakness all year, suddenly seemed like they might have one.

When Kansas City came to Memorial Stadium last weekend, the normally hermetic, if unspectacular, O's defense began bungling routine plays. All three Royal wins in four games could be traced directly to Bird bobbles.

Jim Palmer, making his first start since July 1, was knocked out without ever allowing an untainted run. Dennis Martinez, in the midst of a 4-3 slump, was undone by his own balk and wild pitch, plus misplays behind him.

The Oriole motif all season has been late-inning rallies. On Sunday, the Birds pulled a pip, scoring four in the bottom of the eighth to tie K. C., 7-7. With the bases loaded in the ninth, Lee May barely missed a game-winning grand-slam homer -- another Bird trademark in '79. But he fanned and the O's went on to lose in extra innings.

Finally, the reversal of Oriole luck took another twist in their last game Tuesday when Texas junkballer Steve Comer beat them for the third time this year with a diet of changeups.

Until the O's prove otherwise, the word on them is out: southpaws, offspeed pitchers, or both, have the best chance against the Birds.

"They ought to make a rule," grumbled Oriole Coach Elrod Hendricks, "that it's illegal for a pitcher to throw Frisbees."

Surprising to report, the Orioles show few, if any, signs of a team that is worried or starting to press.

Perhaps the largest reason is that the Red Sox have even more problems than the Birds. And the O's know it.

The Red Sox have a tradition of money, talent and narrow defeats under pressure. "The Orioles' biggest advantage is that it's the Red Sox chasing them," is the current joke. The Baltimore legacy, at least under Earl Weaver, is one of frugality, strong September finishes and victory under pressure.

It is true that since July 2 the Sox have batted .302 with 120 homers in 75 games and a 6.1-run scoring average per game. And, in the last three weeks while the O's have struggled, the Sox have hit .323 as a team.

In a 13-game Sox home stand that ended Sunday, the Bosox duo of Fred Lynn and Jim Rice slugged a combined .990.

But, behind that pair, Boston has problems compounding problems. Catcher Carlton Fisk, his elbow a wreck again, will miss the current nine-game Boston road trip on which they already have lost the first two games.

Worse news is Boston pitching. Behind Dennis Eckersley, who has had an 8-1 record since the All-Star break, the rest of the bedraggled Sox staff has an ERA over 6.00 since that juncture.

The Sox insist, almost as an organizational dictum, that a five-man rotation is a Fenway commandment. The result is that Zimmer tosses the likes of rookies Wilhelmus Remmerswaal and John Tudor into his rotation and they get clobbered.

"Boston's rotation is a mystery to us," said one O's coach. "If ever a team needed to cut back to four men, it's them. We couldn't pay them enough to get them to use some of the guys they've been wheeling out there on the fifth day."

Ultimately, however, the Orioles must look in the mirror to find the source of their September stability.

"We're not a club with big egos, big salaries or big stars," says Mike Flanagan. "But we have a nucleus of guys who are absolutely dependable in what they do. They are the rocks that anchor us.

"Ken Singleton and Eddie Murray are as consistent a pair of hitters as you could have at No. 3 and No. 4. Our defense up the middle with (Mark) Belanger's glove at short, Rick Dempsey catching and (Al) Bumbry in center is rock solid, too.

"But most important," Flanagan says, "is our pitching. Good and deep pitching is the definition of stability under pressure. And we've got more pitching than any team in baseball.

"We can't even find a place for Jim Palmer to pitch."

Pitching is baseball's ace of trumps. The team that knows it will allow three or less runs in most games does not have to press at bat. The defense that is asked to field a diet of weak grounders and popups is less susceptible to collapse than one asked to fetch smashes continually.

"Pressure? What's pressure?" snaps Weaver. "Pressure is when we were 3-8 in April, or when we were a dozen games back at this time last year and had to win every game.

"Being five games ahead isn't pressure. This is what you call fun. This is when it's a pleasure to play the game.

"Everybody's talking about Boston and Milwaukee. But they're the ones who know about pressure. Ask George Bamberger how much fun it is to be eight games behind us in the loss column. We know how much easier it is to be ahead, 'cause we've been in their spot the last couple of years and it's no yuks at all."

But what about the paucity of experienced Oriole players? Only Palmer, Belanger, Lee May and Terry Crowley have ever played in a World Series game.

"How many Reggie Jacksons are there? Guys who are Mr. September or Mr. October?" asked Weaver. "Hell, we might have six or seven of 'em out there in our clubhouse right now. They're just dying to have their chance to show it.

"I'm looking forward to sittin' back and findin' out which ones they are."