No one knows who on the Baltimore Oriole raft was the first to hear that sound -- the rushing of water in the distance, the crashing on the rocks, the sudden premonition that a picnic afternoon might turn from laughter to disaster.

"You spend all day on the water, then you hear that noise," said the Orioles' white-water rafter John Lowenstein, trying to find words to explain how the Birds, once leading 9-1, had ended up sweating blood before beating California, 9-8, for their second straight AL playoff victory.

"You ask yourself, 'Did I take a wrong turn in the river? This couldn't be the fork that leads to the waterfall, could it?'" Lowenstein wondered.

"Then you see the waterfall," he continued, eyes still bolt open, remembering how the Angels had loaded the bases with two out in the ninth inning trailing by that slim one run. "And you're right at the edge.

"There's only one rock left," said the left fielder, still seeing in his memory relief pitcher Don Stanhouse facing California's Brain Downing, a .326-hitter, in that ultimate baseball confrontation.

"Today, we grabbed that rock," Lowenstein concluded with a sigh.

Baseball is the game where time stops, where a whole ball park, like Memorial Stadium with its 52,108 souls today, can hold its collective breath interminably -- as the tension, the pressure, builds almost unbearably.

When Downing finally hit a harmless big one-hopper to Bird third baseman Doug DeCinces, the Baltimore scream began. When Decinces turned, faced base runner Dan Ford and tagged him hard with both hands for the final out, a cheer not of victory, but of survival, exploded.

"If we could have run the clock out today, we would have," said Bird Manager Earl Weaver, about the eight-run lead after three innings behind 23-game winner Mike Flanagan. "But they have this rule that both teams get the same number of outs."

And so, time gradually slowed down, and in the ninth seemed to have halted so the Angels could pull even.

Every Oriole felt the crisis differently. "I was getting madder and madder," said DeCinces. "Everything was going against us. They were getting every break and every call."

"I was scared, just plain scared," said Jim Frey, the first base coach. "These things snowball and then, suddenly, you can't control them anymore. The game gets away from you. I've seen it all my life.

"There were a lot of shaken people on our bench. I'll tell you how tight a spot that was. I moved down next to the Preacher (born-again Pat Kelly). I know for sure that he's tighter with the Lord than I am."

A defeat today would only have tied this series at a game each. But that simple "one to one" would have been a lie. The Angels would have flown home to Anaheim needing only to win two of three in their own park to go to the World Series.

And no set of scales could have measured the weight of failure, the mountainous tonnage of choking accusations that would have burdened the Orioles' wings.

"We really haven't been pushed to the wall yet this season," admitted Oriole Ken Singleton. "And we don't want to be. If we had blown an eight-run lead today and lost . . . yes . . . that would be the wall."

And an Angel firing squad with rifles raised.

Instead, it is the Angels with a brutal psychological burden after twice coming so close here within 18 hours.

Just as Lowenstein was the Oriole hero in Game 1 with his 10th-inning sudden-death pinch homer, the Birds had conventional stars today. Eddie Murray drove in four runs, three with a 440-foot homer. Al Bumbry and Kiko Garcia, the top two Birds in the order, each reached base four times.

And Flanagan, who retired 15 consecutive Angels at one stretch, left the game with a 9-4 lead and two men on base in the eighth with what looked liked a cinch win. Little did he know what lay ahead.

Only the Angel ninth will be remembered from this game. This day's final frame, as the sun went down and the nervous tittering of the packed house turned to pleading, was a masterwork of Hitchcockian drama, complete with freak plays, an umpire whom Baltimore considered nefarious and a protagonist -- Stanhouse -- who lives for such adrenaline tension.

Naturally, to those who know Stan the Man Unusual, Stanhouse allowed both the runners he inherited from Flanagan to score, making the Angel deficit 9-6 to start the ninth.

Leadoff Angel Larry Harlow walked -- a symbolic pass since all four pitches were borderline and ump Dale Ford, with whom the O's had feuded for several innings, called all of them balls.

"Yes, Ford squeezed the strike zone on us because he was mad," said one Oriole infielder. "He came to the mound in the sixth inning and told Flanagan, 'Stop shaking your head (in displeasure) in front of 70 million people.'

"This is what happens when the best umpires don't work the postseason. If the luck of the rotation brings you a poor umpire, you're stuck with him."

"I told Ford, 'I'm not worried about the 70 million people. Why are you?'" said Flanagan.

So, Stanhouse, who throws every pitch for a corner, inherited an old dispute -- one that put him in a hole to almost every hitter. "Let's call it a floating strike zone," said Stanhouse.

"Stanley should have known better," said the Orioles' Mark Belanger. "He goes in with a 9-4 lead and starts nibbling. He's a pro and he should know better. But that's Stanley. That's his method."

Weaver, visiting the mound so he could chew out Ford at closer quarters, also was concerned about mystery man Stanhouse, the pitcher that he calls "Full Pack" because of the cigarettes Weaver smokes while Stanhouse dawdles and nibbles.

"Earl looked up at me kinda funny," said Stanhouse, "so I said, 'Earl, I'm throwing my strikes.'"

Weaver responded, "Do we have a chance to win this game?"

When Stanhouse said, "Yes," the bargain was struck. Weaver would go down the tubes with his ace.

"I left Stanhouse in because I still had three cigarettes left," said Weaver.

Then Halloween happenings started occurring. After a force-out grounder, ancient pinch hitter Willie Davis doubled and Rod Carew grounded out -- one run scoring. Oriole affairs still looked normal, especially when Carney Lansford hit a high, weak pop fly to right. The crowd rose for its final roar.

And then swallowed it.

"It looked like everything everything was happening in slow motion," said Lowenstein. That's because Ken Singleton and Rich Dauer, the Birds in pursuit, run that way."

"Willie Mays would have had it like this," said Singleton, turning as though letting it drop in his hip pocket. "I never had a chance on my best day."

After that macabre play, the spooky music was playing in earnest. Phenomenal comebacks, players believe, hinge on fluke plays, the blessings of baseball fate.

Immediately, the baseball furies struck again. Dan Ford singled to left and Lansford, contradicting common sense, gambled for third base.

"I had a chance to throw him out to end the game," said Lowenstein, "so I went for him." But Lowenstein's foot slipped, his throw was a pathetic three-hopper and Ford, the go-ahead run, took second base. What's going on here?" thought every Bird.

"I thought about how the wives were going out to California on the same plane with us tonight and that could have been uncomfortable," said Singleton, "because they never rally seem to understand how to act after a bad loss."

One thing Singleton was sure of. The next batter, Don Baylor, with his 139 RBI, should be walked. "If I'd seen they were going to pitch to him," Singleton said, "I'd have run in yelling, 'No way.'"

So, at last, Stanhouse and Downing had their moment.

Belanger and Flanagan could not look, staying in the clubhouse, cursing a blue streak and pacing the floor. Weaver had to face the music.His lucky eyes-averting-Stanhouse position in the runway had failed.

"The runway didn't work today," said Weaver. "Every time I went back there, they got a hit. So I stayed right up on the front step and suffered through it."

"Stanhouse was the only comfortable person in Memorial Stadium," pitcher Steve Stone ventured. "He's the only one who had his fate in his own hands. The rest of us were in his."

"Stan was the right person," said his roommate Lowenstein. "When you're going over that waterfall, you need a person who's adventurous and a little bit wild-crazy. There aren't many people like that. Stanhouse well, that's just him.

Many another Oriole was clinging to the gunwales with fists clenched and eyes almost closed. DeCinces, for one, said, "If there was any way not to throw the ball anywhere, I wasn't going to throw it."

So, instead of throwing Downing's simple grounder on a 1-1 pitch slider to first, DeCinces waited for the charging Ford. "I'd have held it if he knocked me cold."

As night fell here, the Orioles were fully conscious and in better health the longer they checked themselves over and found no broken bones.

"We've got two in the left-hand column and they're got two in the right-hand column," said Belanger. "It's a long flight to California and that's what will sink in on both teams -- not how it got that way."

The ominous roar, the sound of gurgling water is becoming audible once more. Only this time, it is the Angels who must look for that last desperate rock to grasp.