Fortunately, Carl Yastrzemski stopped one hit short of his 3,000th today. It would have been a crime, almost a baseball sacrilege, for his Boston Red Sox mates to besmirch his great day with their scandalous 16-4 loss to the Baltimore Orioles.

No team can go south like the Red Sox -- it's a knack handed down like a family skeleton in the closet. When the Bosox decide the season is over, they never let it bother them that another month might be left on the schedule.

And, at the moment no team in baseball is quite so capable as these Orioles of inflicting a truly humiliating beating on a give-up foe.

Today saw a vintage Fenway Park collapse, an absolute duplicate of the back-to-back-to-back foldups that the Sox pulled on this identical weekend a year ago when they grabbed their collective throats and handed New York three games by a total score of 35-5.

Every starting Bird both got a hit and scored a run. Every Oriole except Mark Belanger drove in a run. Rick Dempsey got the first grand slam of his career, Gary Roenicke had a homer, four RBI and was credited with his third game-winning hit in three Baltimore weekend wins here.

On a day when 26 Orioles reached base, 16 on hits, five of those reachers were Terry Crowley -- that least-used Bird with only 49 at-bats -- getting on base his first five trips. When he finally struck out in the ninth, the O's who have now won seven in a row, let out a huge groan.

As ever, the Sox were marvelous foils in this virtually annual New England tragicomedy.

During a fifth- and sixth-inning span when the O's scored 11 runs while making only five outs, the Bosox pulled a true hat trick by making errors on three consecutive plays.

When the Oriole lead reached 13-1, the scoreboard totals -- Baltimore 13-11-1, Boston 1-3-4 -- were a bitter reminder of the Boston Massacre of '78 and the almost-as-sad Red Sox crumble of '77.

This is probably the weekend that marks the end of this particular Red Sox team -- the group of young darlings who became national heroes in the '75 World Series and have backslid to ever more galling defeats since.

Manager Don Zimmer's firing is merely a question of timing. Certainly, his execution cannot happen until Yastrzemski, who singled in his last at-bat today, can finish the interminable Yaz Watch for No. 3,000.

"If I get the word that I'm gone at the end of the year, regardless of what happens in our remaining games, then I'll take the lineup to home plate, take off my cap and I'll have a hairpiece on," Zimmer promised before the game.

"That's how you'll know," said the skipper, only half-joking, to the dozens of questioners who have asked if he is already a lame duck.

It is not, however, just the doughty Zimmer who will be leaving.

"I'd expect some major changes," shortstop Rick Burleson said today. "We seem to have reached the end of a cycle," said Carlton Fisk.

Only self-doubt and recrimination remain for the Sox, a team sorrowfully sundered and perplexed.

Each day the Red Sox have a pool on Yaz's hit -- $5 from each player. Today was Jack Brohamer's day. Since Monday's Birds-Bosox game is a rainout makeup, nobody has that day in the pool.

"Good, nobody will win," Burleson said sardonically. "If Yaz gets it tomorrow, all the money will go to the team party."

To those who know the Sox, that is a brilliantly nasty irony.

"The Red Sox are the most individualistic team in baseball," one Oriole veteran siad. "They have no team feeling for each other whatsoever. They barely speak to each other.

"When you play them, the field is so silent it's almost eerie. Their opponents rarely speak to them because Boston players act so superior. That's why you love to crush them.

"The Red Sox win alone, but especially they lose alone."

Fisk offered, "I don't think it's lack of friendships. I think it's lack of fundamentals.

"You can't have five regulars who can do only one thing well. Everybody can't swing for the pump every time.

"Basically, we don't play the whole game of baseball, like the Orioles do. They play with respect for each other's abilities. They're always a team.

"We have a couple of guys, for example, who'll give themselves up' to hit behind the runner for

one swing. The whole Baltimore lineup has guys who voluntarily give themselves up on all three swings. It's like their badge of pride that they're so unselfish."

Meanwhile, the 94-46 Birds, in the midst of their seventh winning streak of six or more games, were celebrating 2 2/3 innings of shutout relief by huge Tim Stoddard, who nailed down the vistory for starter Steve Stone (10-7).

Stone deserved a shaky win since he had pitched well for two months (since July 6) without a single decision -- win or lose. Stoddard, injury-plagued all year, was slightly less encouraging since he complained of more muscle twinges near the shoulder.

"He looks like a guy who may have a long-term sore arm," said Fish, the voice of experience.